Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reluctant heroes and unconventional wisdom

"Loyalty a factor in heroism" is the title of an article that blipped on the news last Sunday. Interesting excerpt:
...researchers divided medal earners into two groups: those who enlisted ("eager heroes") and those who were drafted ("reluctant heroes"). The reluctant heroes scored higher than any other group in selflessness and working well with others.

Many possibilities preclude the conclusion that reluctant soldiers are more prone to heroic action, such as a smaller share of eager volunteers to begin with. Statistics aside, there may be a bit of unconventional wisdom to be observed in the corporate environment.

Given a challenging and critical assignment, should a manager give it to a team member that is less skilled but eager to assume the lead or to a more seasoned employee who initially does not want to take on the task?

I confess to be divided, but would tend to go with the later. I believe the reluctance from a skilled employee to be a sign of deep awareness of the difficulties ahead and their inevitable impact on his work-life balance.

I interpret that reaction in two positive ways: (1) the person understands what it takes to complete the task and (2) that the person knows he would give its best. Whenever someone takes on a challenging task with his eyes wide-open and at his own peril, whether he chose to do it or not, a hero is likely to be born.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On Leadership, Art, and Design

HDNet is airing a documentary called "Sleek Dreams", about the creative process behind a show car built for the 2005 Geneva Auto Show.

The result is the beautiful Maserati Birdcage 75th, a masterpiece from the renowned Pininfarina studio.

For aspiring designers out there, the interesting part of the documentary is really the influence of Ken Okuyama in the final result.

Lesson #1, the grasp of art and design transcends the medium.

Ken Okuyama was no stranger to automotive success, but it was interesting to learn that he got the job over 500 candidates from all over the world by submitting sketches of...animes; not a single drawing of a car.

He is not a good car designer, he is a good designer.

Lesson #2, good design can be taught...or imposed

In the creative process, Ken chose 4 prominent designers and laid out the tenets for the project: Massive wheels (24" minimum,) and a height under 3 feet. These were not garden variety artists, but designers with ideas of their own. The unusual proportions sparked incredulous looks and even a deriding comment about the wheel sizes being fit for a truck instead of a car.

Moreover, the direction was to establish the design for the car of the future, unconstrained by limitations found in the existing manufacturing techniques. "Think 20 years from now," he said.

In three weeks, each designer should present their final sketches, from which management and Ken would choose just one.

Lesson #3, unusual solutions for unusual stakes

The strategy seemed odd, after all, if he had such vision and talent to decide which design was better, why not design it himself? Moreover, the competition did not seem conducive to team spirit.

The wisdom manifested itself soon. It was not about having a happy team of designers; it was about giving the effort its best chance. Pininfarina wanted to cause a lasting impression during the upcoming Geneva Auto Show - the symbolic 100th of its existence - and assert its image as the leading design studio for the auto industry. The event also coincided with Pininfarina 75th anniversary. Wounds, if any, could be healed later.

Moreover, Ken placed himself at the center of the storm. He called the angst upon him, not letting it fester amongst the designers. During an interim review, Ken criticized each proposal in a very technical and impersonal manner.

A mixed expression of vexation and frustration was clear on everyone's face. The reluctant designer behind the "truck" comment ostensibly questioned the assessment, resulting in a post-meeting session where Ken *drew over* his sketch (the utter humiliation for a designer, according to the documentary,) in a conversation punctuated by comments such as "the nose is all wrong". His tone was not testy, actually rather technical, he seemed focused on the results rather than on his or anyone's feelings.

Lesson #4, sticking up for your vision

At the end of the 3rd week, the reluctant designer followed Ken's suggestion and eventually won the bid, penning a historic moment in automotive history. The triumph was not until Ken fought over management's first choice, which was not in line with his original vision.

A few weeks later, during the construction phase, the designer felt like going back to his original design, asking the artisans to make a key modification to the car lines. The mutiny did not last long, with Ken lassoing back the change during one of his periodic visits to the shop. The designer was allowed leeway as long as the original vision was preserved.

The final lesson, art...trough others

A great designer can transpose his Technique, Art and Quality to the final medium through the work of others. His inspiration must be (far?) superior than the inspiration experienced by the hired artisans, to the point where the designer understands it well enough to abstract it as a vision and to teach it as if the vision was already real.

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