The U.S. Navy SEALs have a term for this – they call it the “bright idea fairy.” Alan Hunter referred to it as “management by memo,” in the book VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave (VJ’s 205). I also saw it most recently cited in the last book I blogged about, The Year Without Pants: WordPress and the Future of Work, by Scott Berkun. The bright-idea fairy often brings down ridiculous thoughts and notions from The Suits and when the bright idea doesn’t work, the Suits lay the blame on the recipients of the bright-idea, rather than the bright-idea itself.
Whenever something is successful, someone tries to break it down and figure it out and see if it can be repeated. I’m not saying this shouldn’t occur, as you can often find good things to incorporate within your organization, but you have to remember that whatever you are studying occurred in a different culture, at a particular time and at a particular place, with a particular situation and circumstances. It’s like a recipe, fail to include a key ingredient and you get a different tasting meal. For example, in my other life, as an aviation security expert, I often have people tell me (or the media, or anyone who will listen) that the United States should adopt the Israeli model of aviation security, then we’d be fine. Whenever I hear that I know that THEY don’t get it – they don’t get the difference in scope, size, scale, characteristics and so forth of their system to ours. While there are some elements that can be incorporated and scaled, it’s not a plug-and-play solution.
But what I think is a big problem with the bright idea fairy is the bright ideas are typically from people who “aren’t talent.” Or, people who were “talent” in their day, but their day has long since passed and the dynamic they are dealing with now is very different.
I’ve noticed that people can typically fit into one of three molds: Talent, Support and Management. Talent is self explanatory – these are the creators, the doers the people that blaze the new paths and take things to the next level. Supporter help the talent, incorporate the ideas and provide the fuel and maintenance of the Talent. Management focuses on the marketing and logistics of the Talent, ensuring that the “beans and bullets,” are taken care of, and finding what the Support and the Talent need to get the job done.
The problem is when management decides they are Talent (same problem when Talent decides they are management). As Rob Lowe says in his book Stories I Only Tell My Friends:
“Most actors are very good judges of what “works,” and yet they are always at the mercy of writers or producers, who can label them “difficult” or “divas.” Meanwhile, if the show flops, it’s always the star who takes the most blame,” — Rob Lowe.
But just as corporate suits can start to become more finicky about things as they attempt to protect their own paycheck, talent also has to be careful that they are not faxing in their performances. Hunter talks about how he and Mark Goodman we’re eventually getting competitive to see who could get a shift done the fastest. Note: for those of you that thought all of this was being filmed live, you’re wrong. Unlike listening to a DJ on the morning drive show the MTV staff would film their segments and then the commercials and videos were dropped in later. Hunter tells the story that eventually he felt guilty because they were speeding through their shifts when there were people who really wanted to hear what they have to say (207).
Of course, there are also people who are Talented and Managing and Talented a Support. So where do the bright idea fairy ideas come from? Maybe there’s a fourth category of people who are just out of their league. Let’s label them the Hanger’s-On.
Then hanger’s-0n are either working well above their station, or in the completely wrong station. I’m not saying these people are incompetent by nature (some are, let’s get real here), but many are in the wrong position. For whatever reason they have wormed their way into a position where they are managing others, the bright ideas start to come out. Hanger’s-on haven’t done the sets and reps though, nor is their reputation and potential future on the line – they are essentially playing with the house’s money. If their idea tanks, the Talent takes the rap, and they find other Talent but they rarely pay for their own mistakes.
At MTV, when the station started becoming successful there were all sorts of bright ideas that came down from corporate. A recurring theme was the attempt by management to get the VJ’s to either hook up with the artists or with each other. At one point they tried to get Martha Quinn to date Billy Joel, even though she had a boyfriend at the time (VJ’s 153).
I think when the suits try to tamper too much with the Talent and with what’s happening that is already successful, they are only reducing the quality – sometimes efficiency doesn’t mean effectiveness. I see this a lot in government purchasing as well – there’s always a low-bidder out there that says they can provide the same service for less. That’s true – but you can also pull the guy off the street that tosses advertising signs in the air to give you a heart transplant and it will cost less than an actual heart surgeon and a team of specialist, but your results may vary. I know the government purchasing officers like to fool themselves into thinking that its lowest “qualified” bid, but many of us have seen what passes for “qualified,” these days. Sometimes you just have to hire the talent and not try to mimic the talent.
I have also noticed the difference between the talent that makes it to the top, versus the tremendous amount of talent out there that never makes it. There is a key distinction. And it is not always based on how much talent one possesses. There are very good singers and artists out there today that we’ll never hear about. In addition to being talented, you have to carry a bit of an edge and be willing to put yourself, your gift, your talent out there, and also be willing to develop that gift. Then, you must learn to defend what you have created, while still being open to unconventional (i.e. not stupid but perhaps left-field) ideas, because it was those left-field ideas that got you there in the first place.
As MTV became more and more popular the show was moved to more professional production facilities and started getting a lot more corporate involvement. As Alan Hunter says, there was a lot more corporate oversight and a lot more management by memo. You could tell the network was starting to generate money – they were moving into corporate lockdown mode (VJs 205). They were also starting to nitpick the little things. In one instance Hunter was joking around with Andy Warhol but then was pulled aside by a corporate suit later on who said he felt Hunter had offended Warhol (Vj’s 205). Warhol apparently didn’t take it that way but regardless, someone at corporate was watching and they were offended – management by memo had come to MTV and life was going to change.
Blackwood, Nina, Goodman, Mark, Hunter, Alan and Quinn, Martha, and Edwards, Gavin. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. New York: Atria, 2013. Print.