Behavioral Science

What Soviet Products Tell Us About Cutting Red Tape

by . March 24th, 2015

Soviet Era product development hurdles are alive and well in the present day. Here’s what Soviet red tape meant for product dev — and why it doomed them.

Looking back at old pictures and day-to-day life behind the Iron Curtain of the latter half of the 20th Century– or present-day North Korea– things seem to take a whimsical, Wes Andersonesque sheen.

Soviet Baby Boomers

Soviet Baby Boomers

It would be a mistake to say that everything produced behind the Iron Curtain was awful. Of course, if you cherry-pick there are certainly instances of pretty remarkable consumer items, from ultralight yet durable exterior panels for Trabants, to nearly indestructible vacuum-tube hi-fi audio systems complete with touch sensors and digital displays decades before those latter features became standard on consumer audio equipment.

Startedeating

East German Trabant, being eaten by livestock

Specific flagship projects were the exception. When it was something for the Soviets to show off, all stops were pulled and a lot of the time truly remarkable projects and products were pulled off.

Agat 4 a Soviet copy of the Apple II

Agat 4 a Soviet copy of the Apple II

But as a whole, goods produced by Eastern Bloc nations for domestic markets were inferior to those made by their ideological rivals. One minor reason often cited for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites was that its domestic consumer products weren’t as good as those developed in the West, thus creating a huge demand for them, and the kind of decadent capitalist lifestyle that produced them.

0000ywag

Lines for basic necessities like the one above were a fact of life in the Soviet Union. But how could a nation that sent the first man into space and credibly militarily threaten the Western Allies not even produce quality VCRs, stereos, and television sets in comparable quantity?

Olymp 006 top of the line tape reel to reel recorder made in USSR (UKRAINA) 1987

1987 Olymp 006 top of the line tape reel to reel recorder made in USSR – via AudioKarma.org

Glossing over what would be a few hundred thousand pages dissecting the topic, much of the problem lay squarely on how technological developments were handled. The USSR’s infamous bureaucracy was a huge hindrance to tech development, to the point they were consistently two to ten years behind the West when it came to the sophistication and finesse of their technology. There was also a “black book” of studies that were effectively banned, for the lack of a better word.

sovietechno

Mid-1980’s Business Week cover

Which isn’t to say they didn’t make any advanced designs or breakthroughs either. On the whole however, the fact that every single detail when it came to product design development had to go through a grueling gantlet of checks and approvals by people who needed to justify their existence by poking their noses into and ordering alterations of things they knew nothing about wasn’t helping the state of domestic technology.

1975 Soviet-Klingon CMAPM PRECEIVER, digitally controlled via touchpad and LED display.

1975 Soviet CMAPM PRECEIVER, digitally controlled via touchpad and LED display – via AudioKarma.org

However, that’s not to say it was a problem unique to highly-centralized Warsaw Pact design bureaus. The biggest way it differed from the West was perhaps in the degree of red tape. In the West, things were pretty much the same, except as a rule information flowed rather more freely, and there were far fewer levels to get through in the case of most comparable enterprises.

Raketa Arctic Expedition watch

70’s-80’s Raketa Arctic Expedition watch


How you are killing innovation with Soviet Era techniques


Don’t think just because the Soviet Bloc went away that the problems they had with project management and design were unique only to them. While it really depends on a case-to-case basis, as a whole, any group of people will tend to kill ideas and creativity far more often than they foster them.

Have any of these things happened at your enterprise?:


Meetings for everything


The 25th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Hey comrade, we’ve booked the purple conference room to discuss that last TPS report! When politics becomes more important than productivity, meetings for the most pointless things will tend to be in regular session.


Empowering without any real power


soviet-space-program-propaganda-poster-19

While it’s true that with great power comes great responsibility, the reverse simply isn’t true. Giving someone more responsibility does not mean giving them more power. You’re just giving them more ways to get blamed or lose their jobs. Probably all because you don’t trust them.


A focus on processes, not people


 

A. Golovchenko c. 1966

A. Golovchenko c. 1966

When things are confusing, we often look to processes to help sort things out. But how often has an obsession with process caused us to lose our humanity — and our touch with the people we serve?


No one knows (or cares about) the point of anything


East Germans Smoking

Authoritarian regimes could be great at often pointless, specific things. Whether it’s making the trains run on time or racking up an inordinate number of Olympic Gold medals while people suffer needlessly, they’re able to make an impact because they actually have a singular purpose with these projects.

But if your project isn’t sexy or just a bit too abstract, good luck getting anywhere.


Too much or too little consensus


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Realistically, most ideas and designs are probably not that great. Otherwise, “great” would be meaningless. But the standards for hearing out ideas should be reasonable within the context of the project, and criticism should be constructive and offer alternatives — or at least something better than “it’s never been done before”, or “it’s always been this way”.

So if you want to go the way other historical losers have gone, it couldn’t hurt to try some of the things they did.

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All images covered under Public Domain or Creative Commons licenses unless credited otherwise

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.

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