The critical problems Polaroid faced in the “Joline Godfrey and the Polaroid Corporation (A)” case are the lack of structures to support innovations and the absence of mechanisms to develop talents. Polaroid’s business revolved around a single product category, which had been under the threat of emerging technologies. The company had retrenched to a narrow focus on profit through cost-cutting and short-term sales promotions instead of business innovations for strategic repositioning. The company’s engineering orientation and respect for “rising-through-the-ranks” made it difficult for innovative endeavors and talents from a different background (particularly females) to bring about strategic changes. The organizational deficiencies at Polaroid manifested themselves through a series of unorthodox choices and manoeuvres of Joline Godfrey and her mentor Jerry Sudbey, which tried to circumvent internal limitations to obtain financial and human resources for the exploration of a strategic alternative. With limited trust and regards for formal processes, Joline turned her Odysseum project into a “private experiment” and failed to compromise tactically with key corporate stakeholders to garner support and legitimacy.
The project gradually lost its direction and internal support and the failed initiative cumulated in Joline’s derailment as an agent of change and a young talent with promising creativity. To prevent failures like Joline and her Odysseum project from repeating themselves, we recommend from Polaroid’s organizational perspective to: 1)Introduce a project management office to provide guidelines, assess viability, prioritize resources and establish milestones and deliverables to materialize innovative ideas; 2)Introduce a mentorship program to provide high potential staff with structured training, line exposure, project exposure and strategic guidance for them to flourish.
The Problems and How They Arose
The critical problems Polaroid faced in the “Joline Godfrey and the Polaroid Corporation (A)” case are the lack of structures to support innovations and the absence of mechanisms to develop talents. Polaroid’s business revolved around a single product category, which had been under the threat of emerging technologies. After the retirement of its founder, the company had retrenched to a narrow focus on profit through cost-cutting and short-term sales promotions instead of business innovations for strategic repositioning. The company’s engineering orientation and respect for “rising-through-the-ranks” had built a collection of like-minds which reinforced this lack of openness, making it difficult for innovative endeavors and talents from a different background (particularly females) to bring about strategic changes.
The Negative Consequences
The organizational deficiencies at Polaroid manifested themselves through an unorthodox mentor-apprentice relationship between Jerry Sudbey and Joline Godfrey. In an attempt to explore a strategic alternative to cope with external changes, they took a series of choices and manoeuvres that circumvented Polaroid’s internal limitations. Joline’s Odysseum project took on a “private experiment” flavour and gradually lost its direction and support from Polaroid’s corporate structure. To Polaroid, the failure of the Odysseum initiative not only cumulated in the derailment of Joline as a young talent with promising creativity, but also spelled an opportunity missed perhaps for a critical corporate change.
What Went Wrong?
While Polaroid’s senior management claimed to embrace innovation, they did not “walk the talk”. As much as Jerry saw the need for Polaroid to evolve with its environment through Joline’s Odysseum project, the initiative lived on a patchwork budget. Financial support needed to be solicited from different functions, most of which through personal relationships rather than formal authority and endorsement. The project team had been assembled from volunteers who worked during private hours. Without stand-alone budget and resources, Joline’s drive for innovation faced tremendous pressure and took a hit in times of cost-cutting. The strategic instinct and personal rapport that Jerry had with peers and top management could only carry the initiative through a short distance, but not to the end where a fundamental change in the way Polaroid does business might have come about. Joline’s career at Polaroid had revolved around ad-hoc projects initiated by senior management (e.g. corporate downsizing and the Spetra launch).
Through these highly unstructured opportunities, Joline had developed a knack for thinking out-of-the-box and taking on challenges at her own initiative. Joline was creative, energetic and highly driven. She had the charisma not only to attract followers but also elicit the best out of them. However, without well-structured training and guidance from Polaroid’s hierarchy, Joline remained a “dreamer” with no hand-on experience in line functions that are essential for creditability and respect in Polaroid’s conservative culture. With few opportunities to work through and appreciate the formal structures and processes in Polaroid, she had developed a tendency to go her own way, unimpeded and even to a degree of stubbornness that she simply refused to compromise tactically with key corporate stakeholders (e.g. the marketing department) to garner support and legitimacy for her Odysseum project (see Exhibit 1).
What Can Be Done to Avoid a Repeat?
While it may be convenient to pin the failure of Odysseum, the mentor-apprentice relationship, and Joline’s derailment on the personal ineffectiveness of herself and Jerry, it would be far more meaningful rather for Polaroid to address innovation and executive development from an organizational perspective (see Exhibit 2). Firstly, we suggest the introduction of a project management office (PMO) to consolidate, support and control innovative endeavors. Individuals and teams are encouraged to formulate ideas into structured proposals with clear objectives, benefit and cost assessments, milestones, deliverables and adoption and cut-loss thresholds. The PMO will evaluate the proposals in terms of strategic fit, potential impacts and viability, prioritize the chosen ones, and procure resources and support for their incubation. The PMO will take projects with promising interim results to line departments for critique and validation, then formalize them as corporate initiatives and monitor their implementation progress.
The cost of a PMO would likely be a couple of executives with good knowledge of organizational structure and business and financial processes to keep new ideas moving along. The key benefits of a PMO are the pronounced commitment to and structural support for intrapreneurship, which would foster innovation while keeping initiatives practical and realistic to yield profits for the organization over both short and long terms. Secondly, to protect talented but inexperienced executives from failing through derailment cracks, we recommend the establishment of a training and mentorship program. Staff with potentials will each be assigned to a mentor from senior management, who will provide strategic guidance and help the staff develop key networks.
The mentorship will be coupled with short-to-medium term assignments to business and functional lines to help the staff acquire hard-skills conforming to company standards and values. This balance of top-down and bottom-up approaches will help the staff understand business processes from strategic planning through to procedural execution. Cost of the program will likely be extra time spent by senior managers (as mentors) and line managers (as trainers). But rewards will be long-term and plentiful – it will help the organization establish talent pipelines and solidify succession plans, which will enhance its long-term sustainability.
1. The market (external environment) is changing – evolving from film to electronic photography. 2. Sudbey as a corporate leader had a vision for Polaroid to reposition to a service orientation. 3. Project Odysseum was carried out mostly through informal structures and lost track in the end. 4. Polaroid lacked the formal structures to support innovation (e.g. financing, human resources, strategic guidance, etc.). 5. Changes are needed in formal structures (introduction of Project Management Office and Mentorship Program). 6. The new formal structures would trigger changes in how different components of the organizational architecture interact with each other (e.g. leadership involvement, work process for incubation of innovative ideas, etc.). 7. Polaroid would benefit as an organization and its staff would have venues to materialize their innovative ideas and develop skills to evolve into competent executives.