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Innovation Blog

Can You Smash the Vase? And Do You Know When to Smash It?

By Shlomo Maital

The best definition of diplomacy I’ve ever heard comes from my friend Bilahari Kausikan, Second Permanent Secretary (i.e. deputy minister) of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, an exceedingly wise and experienced diplomat who has tracked world affairs through the soles of his feet, and with his very sharp eyes, for almost  three decades.  He first joined Singapore’s Foreign Affairs ministry in 1981.

“…diplomacy is akin to making a beautiful vase.  You shape it from clumsy clay, but if it is necessary, you smash it.” [1]

Bilahari goes on to explain that developing foreign relations, at huge effort, in a changing world may demand that the very persons who did so, who created the vase, at enormous cost, may be told this: “we may well ask you to take it and smash it.  And then you must do it without any hesitation”.

Innovation is very similar to diplomacy, as Bilahari defines it.  You fashion new things out of very clumsy clay.  You hope they will be beautiful.  You have a great deal of ego and emotional capital invested in the vase you created.  Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you perceive it to be very beautiful indeed.

But alas, you turn out to be wrong.  Nobody wants the vase, nobody likes it.  This becomes crystal clear very quickly after the innovative ‘vase’ reaches the market.  (This is why you must get it to market desperately quickly; until you do, you will never know for sure).

When this happens, you must smash the vase, without hesitation.  Close the business, dump the product, and move on.

This is one of the hardest parts of innovation – as Peter Drucker called it, “abandonment”,  a key part of his famous NYU course that he taught in the 1950’s.  It is something that we professors of innovation do not really teach sufficiently.

Innovator – you may oppose capital punishment, but in your work, you may need to impose it.  You may need to sentence a much-beloved idea to death.  If so, do it quickly and decisively.  As Bilahari Kausikan notes, this toughness of mind at the end of the process – knowing how and when to smash the vase —  is as essential as the creativity that begins it.

[1] In Chua Mui Hoong, Pioneers Once More: The Singapore Public Service 1959-2009, p. 126-7.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2010
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