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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

The Case for Long Shots

There is one more obstacle to acceptance of innovations such as the Quickup: Most people know that the first version of an all-new design is likely to be less refined than the last version of the old model, with its infrastructure of experienced dealers, repair shops, lenders, and insurers.

All of these reasons for caution make sense, but only if the situation is considered very narrowly. The Sears buyer, the bankers that refused to back the Dymaxion house, the Village Homes regulators, and the RV manufacturers’ gatekeepers were all tuned in to profitability — but in the long run, their decisions lost their companies the opportunity to be market leaders.

Over the years, I have noticed that the people who defend the barricades against innovation are likely to hold an MBA or other financial degree. That’s why designers of all sorts tend to regard “bean counters” as their most dangerous opponents instead of as potential collaborators. I also know that this perception is a symptom of an underlying conflict: Corporate decision makers know that new equals risky, and few have the gift for distinguishing between fruitful innovations and insubstantial schemes.

The solution to these problems requires a new sort of interaction between management and designers. On the corporate side, MBAs and other executives need to learn to think more like designers. To balance the current needs of their enterprise against its future viability, they need to be sufficiently aware of the potential of new inventions. They need to lose the knee-jerk temptation to downplay or ignore the power of a new idea. That means developing an appetite for qualified risk coupled with the ability to tell hype from substance.

On the designer’s side, we need to attune ourselves more closely to the strategic value of our ideas — a gift that both Bill Moss and Buckminster Fuller had, and which explains their successes. Today’s most effective industrial designers — and most effective MBAs, for that matter — are trained to work in teams of people with different backgrounds. Indeed, the most successful new products now are developed by teams that include MBAs, designers, and others with broad knowledge. Typically, members of the team know enough about finance, marketing, and insurance to render their opinions more valuable. Outsiders can bring fresh “DNA,” providing the diversity that encourages positive evolution.

That is the sort of team I’m seeking so I can finally bring the Quickup to market. Because the camper gets relatively good gas mileage, I’m looking for a company that has a “green” MBA or other environmentally knowledgeable person in management. Such an MBA is very likely to have had an education that covered more than statistical analysis and classic financial practice. These individuals exist. Their education is more omnidisciplinary than overspecialized, enabling them to see broader and deeper connections as well as immediate metrics and expectations. But where are such people to be found?

I know of two schools in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) that are set up to produce graduates with the above attributes. New College of California offers a Green MBA (a term the institution has trademarked), and the Presidio School of Management offers an MBA in sustainable management. A Google search reveals a number of business schools offering similar courses of study. It looks like a welcome trend.

Perhaps a graduate of one of these schools will recognize the Quickup as the first of a new breed of energy-efficient RVs. That would change the game, all right — for me and ultimately for the RV industry. But whatever the fate of the Quickup, it is clear that the barrier between corporate decision makers and industrial designers must come down. It is an artifact from an old way of working and thinking. Companies that are serious about reaching beyond their own walls must face their biggest obstacle: the minds of their own people.

 
 
 
 
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