Archive for October 3rd, 2006

“The thing that’s most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again.” – Paula Scher
I read that in my latest issue of Fast Company today (yes, I’m only now getting to it.)

Here’s more great stuff from Linda Tischler’s FC article:

“Most organizations rely on a system of checks and balances to ensure that (the) design adheres to some particular corporate strategy – that’s the language MBAs understand. Trouble is, (graphic) design is inherently subjective. (…) Without a passionate advocate, a strong initial design may be nibbled away by bureaucrats, each eager to prove his worth with a tweak here and a nip there. (…) The key (is) having a client with both the vision to recognize good work and the power to pull the trigger. It’s what Steve Jobs brings to Apple, or A.G. Lafley to Procter & Gamble.”

If you’ve ever worked on projects that involve new ideas, new designs, or new technologies – essentially departures from the routine “this is what we’ve been doing for twenty years” modes of thinking – you know that Design By Committe always spells the death of design.

And the death of great products.

Hell, design by committee usually spells the death of anything original and worthy of note.

The reality of “committees” is that the wrong people usually make up a good chunk of the roll call. Everyone with their eye on a bigger office and an accronym under their name on their next set of business cards wants a seat at the table. Everyone wants to have a say. Everyone wants to be an authority when the big boss is watching.

Everyone wants to add their two cents.

Don’t get me wrong. Great design can – and often does – come from teamwork and interactions between designers, manufacturing engineers, users, materials specialists, and whomever else has something relevant or inspired to contribute. Inspiration can and should come from as many different and seemingly disconnected places as possible. Dialogue plays a role here. It really does. But some people have the power to give bad ideas credence, and influence changes that will turn great designs into… well, crap.

Or boring.

Same difference.

Want to know how to spot them? It’s easy. They are the ones whose “public” contributions run along the lines of:

“Our customers won’t understand this.”

“But… It doesn’t look like one of our products.”

“Can we make it more like (our competitor’s product)?”

“What if you made the grip look more like (enter lame idea here).”

“Why do we need a new product again?”

“It looks too expensive.”

“Nobody’s ever done this before. There’s no guarantee that this will work.”

Interestingly, these are also the people who NEVER use the product (or don’t really get off on using it) – even though they work for the company that makes it. These are people who haven’t spoken to a customer face-to-face in years. These are people whose “contribution” will pull the design away from the edge, and back to the safe, boring, irrelevant middle.

I want to say that these are also people who have horrible taste in music, movies, clothes, art, humor and food, but there is always the odd exception.

Sometimes, though, a meeting can uncover a sleeper contributor (or champion), right there in your office. Someone whom you didn’t expect would be a great addition to your project team but obviously will be. How do you spot them? By the types of questions they ask (and how they ask them):

“How does it fail?”

“Pretend I’ve never seen or heard aout this. What’s the coolest thing about it?”

“How is this going to change my life?”

“What was the inspiration behind your initial design?”

“How many new patents can we apply for?”

“Can you make the final version even better?”

“Fast forward 3-5 years. What will the next version of this look like?”

“How can we make this stand out even more?”

“What obstacles do we face?”

“What do you need to make this happen?”

Great project teams happen one person at a time. One hire at a time. One conversation at a time. (Sometimes, one beer or cup of coffee at a time.) You meet people who inspire you. Who give you ideas. Who challenge you to explore new directions. Who open your eyes to new angles. Who have the skills or the talent to turn your ideas into an actual product. Who know the ins and outs of your market or audience or users’ lifestyles and tastes and loves. These are the people you want on your project team.

If they don’t already work for you, hire them. If not full time (why wouldn’t you?) then hire them on as consultants for the duration of the project. If you don’t bring them in, you will be at a severe disadvantage. Unless your company is already progressive and pro-innovation, you will end up having to bow to pressures from the Manufacturing VP’s pet infiltrators, or the VP Finance’s Porsche-driving bootlick, or the boss’ girlfriend who just got promoted to Vice-President of Sales and wants to flex her new corporate muscle. They will change little things. They will back you into a corner and use their influence to make you cut this corner and that. They will force you to make compromises. They will infect a perfectly great project with mediocrity and won’t stop until there isn’t an original left in the final design.

Mark my words. This will happen.

(If you don’t believe me, look around you. How many millions of Americans work for companies that design and manufacture stuff? How many truly great products are there? Now, do the math: What percentage of the US workforce actually gets to be a part designing and building great products? Yeah. Scary. And it isn’t for lack of talent.)

When you find yourself having to defend a design or project, just remember this: There is no place for fear in design.

Or Marketing.

Or business.

“The thing that’s most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again.” – Paula Scher

Design is about evolution. It’s about combining beauty and function. It’s about pushing the needle forward… not making sure it always stays in one place.

In your own studio, it’s easy. In the corporate world, however, it’s about winning daily battles against the lowest common denominator. It’s about having to fight tooth and nail to prevent great work from being picked apart by clueless, data-driven, execs who are more worried about not screwing up than they are about creating something great.

If you want to succeed – and more importantly, if you want your projects to succeed – you need to make sure that you don’t wind up fighting these battles alone.

Surround yourself with great people. Let them be your commandos. Your A-Team. Let them shoulder some of the weight of the fight, and back you up when you go into battle. The more voices sing the praises of innovation in your organization, the more difficult it will be for the pro status-quo crowd’s cluelessness and fear to be heard and get in the way.

Innovation and design are worth fighting for. And I mean really fighting for. The kinds of fight that leave your ears ringing and your mouth tasting like blood. Oh yeah.

Fight for what you believe in. And win. That’s what separates folks like Paula from folks like… well… the ones you’ll never hear about.

Make it happen. Don’t cave. Drive it forward. It’s what you get paid to do.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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Embracing Obstacles

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

Call them cliche, but those sayings about finding the silver lining and making lemonade when life hands you lemons, they aren’t just hot air.

When I was in the French Navy Marines, the unspoken motto, the underlying mission imperative was always “make it work.”

The intelligence is wrong? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

The insertion routes are compromised? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

You got dropped 15 miles off target? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

Nobody ever had to say it. Nobody ever had to bark the order. From day one of training, it was pounded into us:

Make it work.

Make it happen.

Find a way.

If you don’t, people will die.

The first officer I served under, 1st Lieutenant Rannou, had a saying: “There are no problems. Only solutions.”

He was right.

Sometimes, everything just clicks and works perfectly the first time. You don’t have to do a thing. You may as well be on autopilot. From start to finish, your project, your law suit, your surgery, your product launch, your hostage rescue mission, your ad campaign, your theater production, it all goes well. The planets are alligned. The cosmos is on your side. Everything goes so smoothly that you wonder if you aren’t dreaming.

Most of the time, things don’t go your way. The unexpected happens. Gremlins. Ghosts in the machine. Flies in the soup. Whatever. The cosmos has a way of throwing obstacles your way at the most inopportune times.

That’s just a given.

A butterfly beats its wings in Buenos Aires, and a week later, your stamp machines in Taiwan are down for a month.

A health crisis in East Africa forces the cargo ship carrying the first shipment of your brand new product to spend three extra weeks at sea.

Your movie’s star tumbles off a truck and breaks his arm filming a stunt half way into production.

Your new boss is an self-serving imbecile.

Your client – the publisher of a pro-family magazine – just got arrested for a D.U.I., and you’re handling PR for her company.

Or in the case of teammate Jay Hewitt (photo above), you lay your bike down going 30mph at mile 51 of a Half-Ironman distance triathlon.

What do you do?

No… really. What do you do?

Let me take a quick break from the full list of mishaps and just say that – in case you hadn’t guessed – skin + gritty pavement + speed don’t feel great.

Imagine getting thrown out of a car moving at 30mph, wearing nothing but your underwear.

Not fun.

Now imagine brushing yourself off, finishing the ride as fast as you can, switching out the cartridge in your insulin pump, and then completing a very, very fast half marathon.

Why? Because no matter what happens, there’s still a finish line to cross. A reputation to preserve. A project to complete. A movie to finish shooting. A new product to launch. An essential part to manufacture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a military officer, a product manager, a movie director, a chef, a fashion designer, a newspaper editor or a CMO. This is something you can be absolutely certain of: Though sometimes, everything will click and flow smoothly as if by divine intervention, most of the time, obstacle after obstacle will get between you and your goal.

Call it Murphy’s Law. Call it whatever you want. It’s just life.

And in real life, shit happens.

No matter what you do, something almost always goes wrong.

The more complicated or ambitious your endeavor, the more likely it is that obstacles will find a way to get between you and that finish line. Expect it. Plan for it. Train for it.

Heck, embrace it.

You might as well.

Still, I notice that most people freak out when their plan goes awry. They panic. They lose their cool. They suddenly find themselves feeling lost. They make everything come to a grinding halt while they regroup.


Poor planning. Lack of training. They didn’t take the time to plan for failure. They didn’t think to come up with contingency plans.

Most of the time though, it just comes down to one simple thing: Lack of experience.

So for those of you who are just getting started in this wonderful world of paychecks and clients and cool, crazy projects, here’s a little bit of advice:

Rule #1: Never expect things to work right the first time. (If they do, great, but judt don’t expect them to.)

Rule #2: Expect everything to take at least twice as long as you know they should.

Rule #3: Expect the unexpected.

Rule #4: When everything is going well, worry. (You probably missed something.)

Rule #5: Find out what doesn’t work before your customers do. (That’s what prototypes are for.)

Rule #6: You learn more from how and why a product fails than how and why it works the way you expect it to. (So push your prototypes to failure as often and in as many different ways as possible.)

Rule #7: “Design By Committee” never works.

Rule #8: Trust your instincts.

Rule #9: Listen to the people who will use your product. Their opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Rule #10: Have fun.

Back to Jay: Jay has crashed in races before. Jay knows how broken bones feel. Jay knows that even with no skin on his shoulder, he can keep racing. He’s been there. He’s done that. He has already faced and concquered pretty-much every obstacle in the book when it comes to endurance racing. As a result, when problems happen, his resolution time is almost instantaneous.

Experience builds confidence. Experience breeds forethought and insight. Experience takes doubt, uncertainty, and fear out of the equation. Jay knows that if he crashes, he can probably still finish the race. He knows how to fix a flat. He knows how to repair a broken chain. He knows a dozen ways to fix problems on his bike or with his body, and the ones he doesn’t know how to fix, he can probably improvise if need be.

There are no problems. Only solutions.

Simple enough.

More often than not, projects that appear to have gone smoothly from the outside didn’t go smoothly at all. Every day brought a new hurdle. Hundreds of fires had to be put out. Thousands of split-second decisions had to be made. Course adjustments. Quick fixes. A folder-full of improvised solutions. Personel changes. Vendor replacements. Timeline adjustments. Budget attrition. Whatever. The list never stops growing.

That’s how it really works.

Perfect illustration: Below is Jay at the finish. From the right side, he looks fine. His injuries are out of sight. He looks like a guy who just breezed through a Half Ironman the way most of us breeze through a Taco bell drivethrough.

To an outsider, a bystander, he had a flawless, fun race.

To someone with inside knowledge, he finished despite a horrible bike accident that could have cost him a whole lot more than another medal.

He crashed. He got up. He quickly assessed the situation. He got back on his bike. He finished the race. He added the experience to his knowledge bank.

He made it happen.

If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate the way a project is driven forward, I don’t know what does.

Project manager. Triathlete. Adventure Racer. Creative Director. Platoon Leader. Customer Service Rep. Design Engineer. Toolmaker. Sous-Chef. Football Coach. It’s all the same.

Great project managers aren’t just natural multi-taskers. They’re also natural strategic masterminds. Improvisation kings (and queens). Crisis jugglers. Fearless creative acrobats. Their job (their nature) is to constantly find and implement solutions to problems, foreseen and not. Their job is to embrace hurdles and obstacles, because each one brings them one step closer to their goal. They thrive on making things happen. The more untraveled the road, the better. The more complex the gameboard, the better.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to a) do that kind of work well, and b) love every minute of it.

It isn’t for everybody.

Excuses and blame don’t exist in this little world. There’s only what you did and what you didn’t do.

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

For most people, that’s not a good thing…

…and for some of us, that’s when the real fun begins.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 🙂

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