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|Organization and execution|
In a world
The competitive advantage of organization
Your Approach to Organization and the Destiny of Your Ideas
Creativity x organization = impact
New York Times
The action method
Reconsider How You Manage Projects
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.
—Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons
^ obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating.
Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people,” under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively—that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organizers and leaders. But they can. And when creative and organizational tendencies are able to coexist, society is pushed forward as remarkable ideas are actualized. The real problem is less about how society views creative people and more about how creative people view themselves.
In 2007, Behance conducted a poll of over a thousand self-described “creative professionals,” asking them how organized they considered themselves to be. Only 7 percent of those who responded claimed to feel “very organized.” Double that number (14 percent) claimed to work in a state of “utter chaos,” and the largest group attested to “more mess than order” (48 percent). Upon further follow-up, I also observed that, far from being a point of concern, the disarray experienced by many of these professionals was regarded as a badge of honor!
The reality is that creative environments—and the creative psyche itself—are not conducive to organization. We become intolerant of procedures, restrictions, and process. Nevertheless, organization is the guiding force of productivity: if you want to make an idea happen, you need to have a process for doing so.
Part of the creative mind’s rebellion is understandable, because there is no one best process for developing ideas and then making them happen. Process in general has a bad reputation; anyone who has worked in a corporate bureaucracy knows why. When a process is imposed on you externally, it can weigh you down and diminish your energy.
Process is a deeply personal matter of taste and habit, especially for creative people.
Your process works best for you when it is customized to your own personal preferences. Rather than ask you to emulate a static process that works for others, I will instead present you with a set of core elements to strengthen your existing process. Admired creative leaders share a common approach to organization and managing projects. In this section of the book, you will hear from some especially productive creative leaders and firms—people like prolific author Seth Godin and legendary designer and college president John Maeda. We will also discuss some of the lesser-known—but extremely powerful—practices used at companies famous for innovation, such as IDEO, Walker Digital, and Disney.
ORGANIZATION IS ALL about applying order to the many elements of a creative project. There are concepts you hope to retain, resources you want to utilize, and then the components of the project itself—stuff that needs to get done and other stuff that needs to be referred back to. There are also external elements like deadlines, budgets, clients, and other constraints. All of these elements combine (or collide) as you seek to create, develop, and execute ideas.
These elements exist in any creative project, but we don’t always acknowledge them. Often we try to work around them (or ignore them). Of course, doing so decreases the odds that our ideas will ever happen.
The most important and most often neglected, organizational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, our ideas fail to build upon one another. Structure enables us to capture our ideas and arrange them in a way that helps us (and others) relate to them. Without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to find its weaknesses.
Ideas that should be killed will linger, and others that require development may be forgotten. Structure helps us achieve a tangible outcome from our ideas.
Structure and organization are worthy of serious discussion because they provide a competitive advantage. Only through organization can we seize the benefits from bursts of creativity. If you develop the capacity to organize yourself and those around you, you can beat the odds.
Supply chain management is a heavily logistical aspect of business that seldom attracts much fanfare. Companies like Wal-Mart and Toyota are legendary for how well they distribute and manage inventory. There is no debate that the mechanics of a company—especially its supply chain management practices—help determine the costs, quality, and availability of the product. There are consulting firms and executive level positions within companies dedicated entirely to managing the supply chain—the embodiment of organization within a company. At the same time, many of us don’t really associate such tasks with creativity and ideas.
Since 2004, AMR Research, a leading authority on supply chain research that serves numerous Fortune 500 companies, has published an annual list of the twenty-five companies with the best supply chain management. You might be surprised to learn that Apple debuted on the list at No. 2 in 2007, and overtook companies such as Anheuser- Busch, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and Toyota to take the No. 1 slot in 2008.
Why would Apple, a company known for new ideas and its ability to “think different,” also be one of the most organized companies on the planet? The answer is that—like it or not—organization is a major force for making ideas happen.
Organization is just as important as ideas when it comes to making an impact.
Consider the following equation:
If the impact of our ideas is, in fact, largely determined by our ability to stay organized, then we would observe that those with tons of creativity but little to no organization yield, on average, nothing. Let’s imagine a wildly creative but totally disorganized thinker; the equation would be:
100 X 0 = 0
Does this bring someone to mind? Someone who has loads of ideas but is so disorganized that no one particular idea is ever fully realized? You could argue that someone with half the creativity and just a little more organizational ability would make a great deal more impact:
50 X 2 = 100
The equation helps us understand why some “less-creative” artists might produce more work than their talented and inventive peers. A shocking and perhaps unfortunate realization emerges: someone with average creativity but stellar organizational skills will make a greater impact than the disorganized creative geniuses among us. I’ll ask you to reserve artistic judgment while we consider a few examples.
If you have ever passed through a resort town in America (and, increasingly, abroad), you may have come across a storefront gallery for Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light.”
Similarly, if you are an avid reader, air traveler, or subscriber to fiction book clubs, you have likely come across one of the many novels by James Patterson. Both Kinkade and Patterson are examples of creatives who have generated impressively large bodies of work. It is known that both Kinkade and Patterson employ many people to assist in the production and distribution of their work. In this regard, they are leaders of large enterprises. However, while Kinkade and Patterson have large fan bases, they are also consistently maligned by critics in their industries for being particularly unimaginative and productive to a fault.
Patterson holds the ^ Best Sellers record with thirty-nine best-selling titles. His Web site notes that in 2007, one out of every fifteen hardcover novels sold was a Patterson book. The author has sold over 150 million copies of his books worldwide.
His abundant outreach campaigns include marketing programs such as the “James Patterson PageTurner Awards,” and many of his dozens of published books have been optioned for television series and movies. Not surprisingly, he has started his own firm, James Patterson Entertainment, and is known to work on more than five novels at once.
In the industry newsletter ^ , it was noted that if Patterson were treated as his own publishing house, “he’d be tied for fourth for most #1 bestsellers in 2006 —ahead of HarperCollins, a major publisher.” It is no surprise that critics have likened Patterson’s creative process to a factory. Patrick Anderson, a well-known critic for the Washington Post, described Patterson in one review as “the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, skuzzy, assembly-line writing.” Other critics have lambasted the similarity of the plots of his novels.
As for Patterson’s take on his success, he attributes it to a “golden gut—an ability to sense what’s going to appeal to a lot of people.” Patterson’s stunning productivity may stem from his previous life. Before authoring his first novel, Patterson was the CEO of J. Walter Thompson, one of the world’s top ad agencies. Climbing the ladder to CEO, he developed the strengths as a leader and organizer that have distinguished his performance as a writer. Regardless of what the critics say, Patterson makes ideas happen at an almost alarming rate. And despite what you may think of his ideas, he is undeniably prolific and consistent. In our Creativity × Organization equation, he is either a 50 × 100 or a 100 × 100, and his impact is nothing short of remarkable.
Thomas Kinkade is similarly prolific. The sheer number of paintings coming out of Kinkade’s studio is bewildering. In Kinkade’s case, some may argue that many of his pieces look the same or are reused for different purposes. Kinkade’s work is described in one book, The Rebel Sell, as “so awful it must be seen to be believed.” There are even comedy Web sites that parody the work for being cliché and mass produced. One might argue that Kinkade’s work is short on fresh ideas, but it is produced, marketed, and distributed efficiently and successfully.
In our Creativity × Organization = Impact equation, both Patterson and Kinkade are exceptionally high on the organization side and have made an incredible impact in their respective industries as a result. From this you can see that the “organization” side of the equation deserves as much focus as the “creativity” side. Why? Because ultimately you want to make an impact with your ideas.
Apple, Kinkade, and Patterson are just a few examples of the power of the organization part of the equation. Amidst the joy of generating ideas, it is worth taking the time to develop your ability to organize them—and the resources required to stay organized.
The notion of spending energy moving stuff around rather than creating new stuff is understandably unappealing to the creative mind. Rather than forcing something that is not natural, we must understand the value of organization and develop creative approaches to it.
Work and Life with a Bias Toward Action
WHEN BRAINSTORMING, WE generate ideas to solve problems—or conceive of something entirely new. Once an idea is posed, it is played with and expanded upon without limits. Each question and extrapolation gives rise to alternative and tangential ideas. An intoxicating creative exchange commences that often leads to unexpected places.
But the harsh reality is that brainstorming sessions often yield disappointing results.
Ideas with great potential fade from the participants’ minds with each additional idea thrown into the mix. Strong possibilities are trumped by alternative—not necessarily better—possibilities. Ultimately, we surrender to the clock, our take-away being either the last idea mentioned or the consensus idea—a watered-down version of an early idea that kept coming up again and again. We go back to our desks with a mishmash of notes and sketches, often with no sense of who should do what, what happens when, and what else needs to be researched or discussed before action can be taken.
A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought. The tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea spreads your energy horizontally rather than vertically. As a result, you’ll struggle to make progress. In a no-holds-barred session of blue-sky brainstorming, rampant idea exchange is exhilarating. But without some structure, you can become an addict of the brain-spinning indulgence of idea generation.
Recognizing the tendency to bask in idea generation is the first step toward managing your energy to ensure a tangible outcome. While you may enjoy generating brilliant ideas and imagining new possibilities, you must approach every occasion of creativity with a dose of skepticism and a bias toward action. Brainstorming should start with a question and the goal of capturing something specific, relevant, and actionable. You should depart such sessions with more conviction than when you started.
Randall Stutman, an executive coach for some of the most senior leaders in corporate America, often says that the greatest leaders are “optimistic about the future, but pessimistic about tasks.” In the creative world, leaders should be excited about the potential of new ideas, but they should also be deeply concerned with how to manage their ideas as projects.
Ultimately, every idea is associated with a project. Whether personal (a birthday party you are planning) or professional (a new product launch), every project revolves around ideas that you want to push into action.
Brace yourself; we’re about to get our hands dirty. The term “project management” makes most creative people cringe. Elaborate Gantt charts and byzantine procedures plague bureaucracies large and small. Depending on your approach and your mind-set, the experience of organizing and managing a project can be miserable or deeply satisfying. Nevertheless, ideas are made to happen only as the result of a well-managed work flow. So, bear with me as I make the case for how you should manage your many projects.
My team and I have observed how hundreds of individuals and teams manage projects. Over the years, we have aggregated the best practices and developed a method for creative project management that works across the spectrum—from the smallest personal task to massive corporate endeavors involving hundreds of participants and dozens of milestones. The “Action Method” can be grasped and adopted by even the most wayward creative minds.
The Action Method causes us to question many of the traditional practices of project management. Handling a project as some big and dense objective laid out by the higher-ups and distributed to the masses is no longer ideal. In the pursuit of making ideas happen, the traditional emphasis on planning and constant top-down communication is bulky and counterproductive.
We have found that even within large bureaucratic companies with elaborate, formal project management systems, the most productive people run their own parallel processes to accomplish projects more flexibly. These homegrown systems share a common set of principles:
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