What does it take to create truly excellent design solutions? Sometimes it comes from realizing how -- and from where -- innovation springs and flourishes.
If you have a company mission statement, excellence is part of it—not that word, perhaps, but definitely that concept. No one expects to survive in business by being mediocre or worse, after all. But too often, that’s where we end up. We get busy, we get lost, we get confused. Time exerts its constant pressure: get it out the door and get on to the next thing, even if this one isn’t quite there yet. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.
And yet, sometimes excellence appears, almost magically, as if from nowhere, as you can see elsewhere in this issue. I know nothing at all about the winners, but I can tell you that all of them excel on three dimensions: appropriateness, creativity, and execution.Context is King
The solution has to fit the problem: it has to be of use in a specific context. It has to be right, it has to fit, or it’s not excellent. It also has to be new and surprising in some way. There must be an element of creativity, of inspiration in design and concept. The same old same-old is not excellent, no matter how right it may be. And of course, the work has to be executed with flawless precision, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Absolute perfection is absolutely impossible in the real world. But we all know when there was a serious, committed effort to achieve it, and when the people involved settled for “good enough.” Excellence is not acceptable–it’s much more than that.
Rightness, newness, attention to detail. A simple formula, but one that requires managing inherent contradictions. Making it right requires dealing with limitations: budgets, zoning, legal requirements, buildings already in the neighborhood, environmental considerations … the list goes on and on. Constraints appear to be antagonistic to creativity. “We can’t… ” “We tried that already.” “That is not going to work.”
But are limitations really obstacles? That depends on how you phrase them. “We can’t…” is an obstacle. “How might we ...?” is an invitation, one that might be accepted with “We could, if …”Inherent Contradictions
So, changing the language you use around constraints can turn them from blocks to stimulants. Is that enough to make your team creative? Probably not: teams aren’t creative, but individuals are. Unfortunately individuals, especially creative ones, are not really “team players.”
Why is that? On some level, every firm, even yours, is a tribe. After the formal hiring process, there is an informal process of becoming a member of the tribe. Company stories may have to be repeated to the newcomer. There may be covert ritual tests of loyalty and compliance. If the new hire fails too many of these, the tribe usually begins a subtle process of pushing that member to the outskirts, of limiting their power, of keeping them on the lower levels of the hierarchy. They may be excluded from the best projects, they may get smaller bonuses and raises, their performance reviews will be neutral at best, and eventually they will be denied promotion in favor of someone who is a better fit with the tribe. Too bad, because they may have an ability to see things that others cannot.
Now, any firm has to have a coherent social system if it hopes to execute with some degree of precision. Compliance and belonging are one of the ways a company creates a core competence. But compliance is not the same as creativity. In fact, it is the opposite. Going along to get along will not produce innovation. It will not solve familiar problems in unfamiliar and exciting ways. In short, the more cohesive the tribe is, the less likely it is to excel. We see this in remote areas of the planet where tribal cultures persist—people live and work in much the same ways their distant ancestors did, even when they are aware of alternatives provided by modern technology.
Some people seem to be naturally at home in a particular social context (tribal environment). They can be important contributors to an organization’s ability to execute, to produce, to deal with the thousands of details that are required to bring a new idea to fruition. They may be leaders, but leadership is not the same thing as creativity either.
So it is a mistake, although a very common one, to confuse status with talent. People gain status by fitting into and using the social context of the workplace. Because creative people see things differently, they tend to be less successful in group situations like the classroom and the office. Albert Einstein, to give one very famous example, was a notoriously poor student.
This is why group-oriented “creative processes” like brainstorming have a strong tendency to collapse into tribal rituals of hierarchy — the “big thinkers” propose their “bright ideas” and everyone else applauds. Even if you can keep the group focused on the question or problem, it takes a special kind of open-mindedness to recognize a new idea when it is coming from a low-status person. In most cases, your best bet is to give those misfit creatives some space and time to come up with something on their own. Results aren’t guaranteed of course, but the odds of a group succeeding are much smaller.Voyage to Excellence
This is not to say that a coherent company with a strong shared culture is a bad thing. It may not be the best at genuine innovation, but there’s no substitute for real cooperation when it comes to execution. You may have been presented, seemingly out of the blue, with a wonderful answer to a design challenge, but a great idea, even one that fits the situation, is still not an excellent project. There are plenty of devilish details to be worked out on the way to delivery. Plenty of room for everyone to contribute individual expertise. Plenty of hard work, which won’t get done unless information is shared freely and responsibilities are delegated efficiently.
Someone has to carry a solitary individual’s insight across the bridge to group ownership, and the person who had the creative idea is probably not that someone. This is a delicate moment, where leadership, sponsorship and guidance are very much needed. It’s too easy to let one critical voice spiral into a chorus of negativity before a surprisingly new idea can even be fully expressed. You can set the right example by talking about what you like up front, and then, if you must, moving on to an “I wish” list. All those things that need to be further defined or completed, those are your template for bringing the tribe-I-mean-team on board. Then you can all set out on a voyage toward genuine excellence: designs that are right in surprising ways and executed with passion and skill.