Concepts and Inertia
Posted by hyperpat on December 7, 2006
My previous post was an example of concept thinking. This is the kind of thing engineers in Silicon Valley are famous for, except you usually hear about those incidents where the idea was scratched out on a napkin, the instigators then moving to a garage, and three years later are multi-billionaires – but I’m afraid my little conceit won’t get me those bucks; heck, it’s not even original. The nice thing about playing around with ideas like this is that you don’t care if your numbers aren’t exactly right; you’re only looking for whether the thing is possible at all, within an order of magnitude. A lot of little details can be safely ignored, to be dealt with much later in the implementation phase. Of course, sometimes those ‘little’ details show up to be not so little, occasionally they are even idea wreckers. But this kind of thinking does weed out those ideas and concepts that have no hope of ever becoming a reality, and does allow for long-term planning and the generation of a road map for where you want be sometime in the future.
In government-speak this is called a feasibility study – but they don’t do it in quite the same way. Instead they spend three years and 50 million dollars to study an item, at the end of which they’ll issue a 50 page memorandum that will basically say no more than what I did in that prior post – they’ll just do it in that lovely indecipherable language bureaucrats are so fond of. Large corporations also seem to be subject to this problem, which is why continuous innovation at such companies is so difficult to achieve.
The real question is, how do we get large organizations to be innovatively nimble? The ideas are always there – there’s always someone who thinks a little weirdly. Getting those ideas through the boardroom or the congressional committee is something else again. This has been the subject of numerous books on business, I know. My own answer is, you have to let the decision-making empowerment drive down to the level of very small groups within the organization – I don’t think that group size can be much larger than 30 people. And that empowerment means just that – that small group has to have the power to actually start implementation of whatever idea they come up with, that funding will be there, and the amount of paperwork justification and upper level reviews must be held to absolute minimums. Now this means there might be a large probability of failure for not just the little group but the company as a whole, but it also means that the company can grow dramatically when the idea works out. A few companies have taken the approach of spinning off a new company when tackling potentially good but expensive ideas, to help protect themselves from the possible failure of the new idea, and this method can work – but only if the spin-off company is started with enough capital to see the project through.
Unfortunately, decision empowerment down to this level doesn’t seem to be possible in government circles. Governments are almost necessarily driven from top-down, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with a government clerk and twenty-two different forms to get a permit to cut down a tree in their front yard can tell you, this leads to extreme inertia and slavish following of the ‘rules’. How we change this, I’m afraid I don’t know – all suggestions appreciated.