Bob Sutton on the Human Side of Business

Bob Sutton, business management guru, Stanford professor and author of Weird Ideas That Work, The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, pulls from his considerable body of business research, analysis and well-informed common sense to offer up observations and advice for in-house designers.

A common complaint or challenge for in-house designers is that the client is often coming in and intervening in the design process a little bit more than they should. I was hoping you could speak a little bit to that and maybe some strategies that in-house designers could utilize in order to minimize this interference.

Oh boy. I have seen that sort of push and pull a lot. There is always that tension between fending clients off and then involving them in the process—that notion of “don’t show uninformed people unfinished work.” It really is a dangerous thing whether we are talking about designing an object or now increasingly design that is being applied to everything, even with organizational structures. Working with people who can’t imagine that this is just a prototype and it is not done is really tough.

What this reminds me of is this quote from Bill Coyne, who headed R&D at 3M for about 12 or 13 years, that when you plant a seed in the ground you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing. I guess in this day of the internet you can dig it up every seven minutes to see how it is doing and it is just ridiculous.

There are some strategies that I have seen. The first thing is that sometimes it is better not to talk about what you think is your most important work. I hate to advise this to designers, it sounds really dishonest, but sometimes maybe it is in support of the plant analogy, it is how to allow a concept to develop a little bit. To this point, I still remember a panel discussion at Motorola right after Bill Coyne retired from 3M. He was talking about the notion that very often he would not show—he was talking about the top management team of 3M—the most important stuff that was going on because he was afraid they would ruin it. It is sort of an amazing statement from a company that big and an executive that senior that he would provide cover for his team and their projects.

Is there a specific point in the development of an idea that is the best time to bring a client or a manager into the loop?

My perspective is the more sophisticated they are, the earlier you can bring them into the process, and the more that they are your friends, the earlier you can bring them into the process. The less they understand the longer you have to hold off. The other thing we were talking about before we started the recording is that designers in general are incredibly sensible people and believe that they should do the right thing, at least that is my experience, and tend to be less political than many folks are, but sometimes what you have to do is face the facts of organizational life and build up a coalition and understanding with people in other parts of the organization who might ordinarily be your enemies.

Your comment brings me to another point that I know gets brought up continually within the in-house community: How much value should be placed on personal relationships and developing those to forward projects or other agendas of an in-house team?

If you look at all of the very good research about what leads to effective teams and effectively getting things done in large organizations, it is an incredibly human process. A lot of that means having a boss (or you as a boss) developing some political capital so you can get things done. In Good Boss, Bad Boss, I talk about those bosses who tend to be most effective, the ones they call energizers: individuals who after you talk to them you feel like you have more rather than less energy. Then there are other people who have both the courage and maybe the power to get rid of the most destructive team members. That notion to me is an incredibly human process. Especially when considering the creative work that you and your colleagues do. It just seems so delicate in terms of keeping people going.

You spoke about bosses being energizers. Are there ways that designers who have ideas that they are trying to communicate and sell to their bosses can be energizers that are similar to what you suggest in Good Boss, Bad Boss?

There is a specific body of research about this by Rob Cross at the University of Virginia. He has done about 50 studies where he surveyed all of the people in an organization and the connections between them—not just bosses. The people who tend to be most widely admired and also have the most positive effect on those around them are the ones who after you talk to them you have more energy. They are not just upbeat charismatic people. Actually, many of them are very low-key. What they are, though, are people who are trustworthy, are viewed as having integrity and who would have your back—a person who is considered a trusted friend. So that sort of stuff does matter and I think gets back to the human part. To me, that is the non-sleazy part of networking, of being an authentic, good sort of person.

Unfortunately, and I would count myself among them, people who at least try to do creative work are not always the kind of people who get out of their offices and schmooze and socialize.

I hate to say it, but especially if you are doing the kind of work where some political work is required, you might want to get out and try doing some of that stuff because it does help. It is sometimes necessary just for political survival in any large complex organization, including my own, by the way. I probably made some of my own mistakes here by hiding with my door shut, writing my book instead of maybe doing a little more Stanford politics.

One thing I’ve noticed—especially tying into this whole idea of energizers being trustworthy and having integrity—which probably bodes well for in-house designers—is that most designers in in-house or corporate environments understand and value the notion of service. They see things in a larger context rather than just their territory.

There is a fine line though that I’ve noticed which ties into your book The No Asshole Rule, where, given this service mind-set of designers, they sometimes fall into relationships with their clients or their managers where they almost become a doormat. They know that what the clients are asking them to do often times is for the good of the company, yet the ways clients are making those demands are not necessarily the most respectful or the most efficient. Can you speak a little bit to that?

I have sort of two reactions, which is to put some responsibility on both sides of that equation. I’ve worked with a large well-known organization that does a lot of creative stuff where you have got both the people who are the designer creative types and you have got the people who are actually their superiors and in some cases their peers who do more of the classic implementation work, and there is always enormous tension between them. From my perspective, they have made progress in the last five years because of what has happened with the designer types who tend to be emotionally bottled in this organization. [The designers in this organization] have learned and come to understand from a new boss who actually was from the more efficiency implementation side of the business. He does a really good job of explaining to them, even doing role modeling of how they look in a meeting, and cooling them out a little bit. At the same time, he works with his former colleagues, to get them to understand that they got to put up with a little bit more volatility and that designers are different emotionally than people who make the trains run on time. To me, I think that he builds this case of mutual understanding. He is like a left-brained guy with a lot of empathy basically. It is kind of funny that he is the perfect person to be a boss in this situation. He doesn’t get mad at the designers, he just tries to get them much better at implementation.

People would squash these designers’ ideas by saying they weren’t economically viable and stuff, and the designers would just go insane. You can’t blame them for going insane on one hand. On the other hand, you know, in the end things have to be turned into some final deliverable that is implemented. The thing that I was impressed about was the success of this guy who I would have predicted was the worst possible guy to run this organization.

Are there things that leaders of creative teams can do to better insulate or create a nurturing culture within the corporate culture? Is that something that needs to happen in order for creative teams to survive in what will probably never be a particularly hospitable environment for them?

I did these sort of innovation creativity design type thinking workshops with one of the largest pharma companies with the top folks there and, man, it was tough. What I would actually have to do was about 20 minutes into it basically have a bitch session about all the reasons why creativity was stupid given what they were doing, and then then try to get the room to a place where we could talk about it and say OK, so when it comes to FDA approval and sustaining the quality of the product, obviously we are not talking about creativity there, but what about in marketing? What about in the labs, and what about the way you guys are structured and providing incentives for employees, because that was one thing that I would notice in that particular organization, that they were actually remarkably uncreative with their business model and with the way they compensated, rewarded and motivated employees. They did a particularly bad job with younger and more creative people.

If you look at what has happened with big pharma, not to use any names, but a lot of them are in a lot of trouble because the product pipeline is running out, and they are real creative in marketing but to the point of being almost unethical.

But to get back to your original question, one of my colleagues, David Kelley of IDEO fame, the one designer in the world who has had the most influence on me, has this saying he uses when you are having a conflict, which drives more rational people crazy, that “life is messy.” And it is never not going to be messy. It is not like there is going to be this beautiful, smooth relationship. At best, there are going to be periods where you have uncomfortable conflict and then it’s resolved. Then you have uncomfortable conflict and it’s not resolved. In fact, when I think of the good relationships I am in, they are kind of like that a little bit. If there is a point where there is no conflict, the relationship is not working, because the tension between getting it done well and getting it done cheaply and quickly is never going to go away.

That is really good for designers to hear from someone like you who has been in corporate environments. There is almost a dichotomy here with designers because we often have control over the design process, and as we are working on it there is a sense that we can achieve perfection in the process and in the final result. And I can’t tell you how many times when I have given a presentation, people come up and ask, “What is the silver bullet? What is the answer to perfectly integrating ourselves into the corporate culture?”

Obviously, and I’m guessing you are laughing because you know very well that never happens, is that there is this wonderful naïveté on the part of designers, but that really ain’t going to work in the real world. It is good to hear from someone like you who has had so much experience in business and in relationships between different people in the corporate world that there is always going to be this tension, there is always going to be certain conflicts and things that need to be addressed and balanced out.

I agree. I also will say, maybe it’s the optimist in me and maybe you have experienced this, that I certainly have experienced a great working environment four or five times in my life for medium periods. Every now and then the stars align and something absolutely beautiful happens. I have been on a team where everything feels great. There was a group of us at Stanford I remember—I was teaching with this crazy, diverse teaching team of four or five of us. It was two executives, two design types, one of them was Diego Rodriguez from IDEO and another was one of my doctorals now, Liz Gerber, who teaches design at Northwestern, and everybody just played their roles perfectly. We had these great, really fun nights and everything. Then it was over, and I was on to the next term where it was sort of hell again, right?

I think there is also some hope that over time we all get a little better at calling our relationships and making judgments. The percentage of bad stuff goes down so there is some hope for improvement.

Ed. note: This interview is adapted from an audio interview that originally appeared on HOW’s InHOWse blog.

About the Author:

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund. He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.

Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities.