Another great idea bites the dust — How bad management can kill good creativity

“The state needs more money. Let’s raise taxes. If everyone pays more taxes, the state gets more money.”
A bad politicians way of thinking about making money

There is much to be said for building your own startup when you want to realize creative ideas. At least if you are working for an organization that stifles creativity. The last case I’ve heard about a great idea killed due to bad management was in a research institute:

A couple of years ago, a senior scientist developed a program that solves a frequent problem that occurs during social interaction. After a couple of (unpublished!) studies, the program remained unused for a long time. Recently, the program was test-used again and despite being old and not exactly easy to implement or user-friendly, a junior scientist saw the potential in it.

This junior scientist sat down one day after work and came up with a concept to make the program easily usable for the broad public. He also added a few useful features in the concept. The senior scientists agreed that it would be desirable to realize the program this way and was willing to join forces.

The next steps would be to write it completely from scratch in a different, more useful programming language, to test it, and — if successful — to start distributing it. However, this would be a lot of effort and was outside the work description of both scientists. Furthermore, both had more than enough to do already. So, the junior scientist considered doing the months of programming in his spare time — provided that the two scientists would own the new program, not to the research institute in which one of the scientists came up with the prior version. The institute could use the new program for free, but if any profit would be made, it would go to the two scientists.

I have no experience with spin-offs, but it sounds fair to me, given that:

the research institute

  • has a mission statement that is focused on research only,
  • is funded by taxes and research grants,
  • could do research on/with the program for free, and
  • has no commercial projects, nor experience in doing them;

the program

  • was originally just developed for the research of the senior scientist by the senior scientist,
  • would not have been continued by the institute anyway,
  • would have been redeveloped completely from scratch,
  • would have additional features (only the general idea would be the same), and
  • would solve a social problem for many people and advertise for the research institute; and

the scientists

  • came up with the concept to make it more user-friendly, additional features, etc.,
  • would work on the program in their spare time,
  • would take the risk of investing time, money, and effort in this program, and
  • would pay taxes if they make any profit (as would those who buy it — and the taxes in turn finance the research institute — there would actually be value created here).

Sounds like a win-win-win. Now, what can go wrong here?

Normally, the study using that program would have been published — in which case it would probably have been no problem to build upon the program on your own. As far as I know (but I am not a lawyer) published work is fair game. But there were no published studies in this case. Which meant the director of the research institute had to agree to this proposal.

Well, while the director of the institute seemed to be open to the idea, he also wanted to think about it — and run it by administration. No problem here, given the amount of work that would be involved, the junior scientist wanted to get the official permission in writing anyway. Trust has its limits and a verbal agreement is useless when the person who gave the permission gets hit by a truck.

After a month or two, the director and the administration came to the conclusion that — while the new version of the program would be a good idea — it would also be stupid of the institute to give up on the chance to make money. They agreed that the institute should “do” the development. The junior scientist could, for example, redevelop the program during his working hours for the institute (yep, when the director was informed about the idea, he was also told that this was not an option).

Besides shaking my head in almost-disbelief, the whole situation just making me sad.

I mean, I could blame the few App developers who became “instant” millionaires via their apps. It can make some people greedy, esp. people who do not understand that you don’t just write an App over night. That “Angry Birds” took huge development effort. That even a “simple” Quizz App takes more than just jotting down a few questions. But people only hear about the successes, the money earned, the potential — and not about the hundreds of thousands of developers who invested a lot of time and effort and got (almost) nothing in return. Who vanish among the millions of Apps that are available.

But it’s not only that. It also seems to be a common theme of a particular kind of organizations. The kind of place where innovation goes to die. Because an unrealized and probably never realized potential that the organization controls is seen by those in charge as more valuable than having contributed to something really useful that actually gets realized. Something that would also reflect positive on the organization itself. And en passant, it stifled the initiative and motivation of an engaged employee.

And this time, there is a really useful idea that is currently badly implemented and unusable for anyone outside the technical infrastructure of that organization. And even within that organization, the program is neither used nor kept up-to-date. Give it five years and the program won’t run anymore. Yet it solves a frequent and pressing social need. It could become something for that particular need akin to what doodle does for scheduling. Nobody can guarantee success, but, yeah, I think the idea is that good.

And now that idea is dead.

The funny thing is … while the research institute has lost a chance to make an impact and tie its name to a very useful and — if successful — widely used program, the situation is not as bad for the junior scientist. Seriously, when organizations kill off ideas, because their culture and management stifles innovation, they might kill those ideas that do belong to that organization. That is, until someone else comes up with a similar idea on his/her own. But really, ideas are never the problem. If that idea cannot be realized, there are other ideas just waiting to be realized. And they don’t belong to any organization … yet.

So, regarding this case I’d say:

  • It’s frustrating that this social need remains unaddressed, but given parallel creativity, someday soon someone will come up with a similar solution. Innovation does not wait on bad management.
  • It’s a blessing for the creative individual that the attitude of the organization became clear prior to the major programming effort. Frustrating, yes, but not as frustrating as having developed something great and then losing it.
  • It’s best to realize your own ideas in your own time instead of trying to be creative in an organization that stifles creativity. Best case scenario: You come up with something that you own and the organization has to buy.