Thought You Should See This, April 20th, 2012

This week’s posts on my innovation/design themed blog, Thought You Should See This:

Of course, top billing this week goes to Monitor/Doblin’s own Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff, proud authors of the lead feature story in May’s Harvard Business Review. Managing Your Innovation Portfolio describes the practice of “total innovation.”

I loved this story of crowdsourcing for the ages. Car blog Jalopnik posted a call for its readers to help the Waynesboro, VA Police Department in identifying a part that came off the car of a driver involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident. The commenters came good–and two suspects are now being held in custody. Small comfort for the victim’s family, of course, but a heartwarming tale of the power of crowdsourcing.

Gary T DiCamillo, former chief executive at Polaroid, gave an insight into why the former innovation giant stumbled in a New York Times piece, Innovation Isn’t Easy, Especially Midstream.

MFA student Rachel Lehrer spent seven months tracking handwashing compliance in hospitals. This piece is a fascinating insight into the many contradictory pressures faced by those looking to implement design principles in both their broadest sense–and in contexts unused to the influence or potential of design.

“Soccer is a metaphor for creative collaboration in a team, and coaching soccer can likewise be a metaphor for effective leadership.” Goal Play!: Leadership Lessons From The Soccer Field, by Paul Levy, sounds like a good read.

Head of Google X, Sebastian Thrun, describes Udacity, his extracurricular efforts to create the higher education institution of the future.

Lots of approving buzz for the launch of the Innovator’s Patent Agreement by Twitter. Patents are a hotly contested tool of innovation, with patent trolls and high-dollar lawsuits stifling and impeding the flow of ideas necessary for a thriving economy and its flourishing businesses. This aims to act as a counter force.

The Times has a good breakdown of Sony’s strategy, and some great insights into how once unassailable-seeming giants can fall from grace–including that all-important factor, company culture.

And finally, for anyone excitedly awaiting Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie, Prometheus, here’s a terrifying trailer made by my dear friend, Johnny Hardstaff (top). Very cool, and very totally and utterly terrifying.

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How to Manage Massive Brand Complexity, Target Style

[[Latest word works, this article written for Fast Company.]]

Tim Murray has a daunting job. As creative director of the Creative Vision Group at Target, he oversees the work of 10 agencies, 4 digital partners, and 3 branding studios. And those are the external contributors. Internally, Target, a Fortune 30 company with a market cap of $34.6 billion, has more than 1,200 people working in the marketing department alone. The potential depths of brand and design-related chaos across its 1,755 stores are mind-boggling.

Yet, think of the Target brand, and it’s likely that one image will spring to mind: the Target bull’s-eye, that red ring around a red dot that has come to signify the design savvy and affordable prices of the Minneapolis-headquartered department store.

Last week, Murray took the stage at an AIGA/NY event held at the New School in New York to outline how exactly one goes about producing deceptive simplicity from unfathomable complexity. Alongside him were three of his collaborators, Michael Ian Kaye from Mother, Mary Ellen Muckerman, Wolff Olins’ strategy lead, and Joe Stewart from Huge. Together, the group discussed some successful projects–and even ‘fessed up to a few of the more challenging areas of collaboration.

For instance, this concept caused knowing nods from the audience: the “compliment sandwich.” Essentially, this involves a client giving an elaborate compliment, followed by some pointed criticism, quickly followed up by another compliment. As Muckerman put it, she and her team had come off conference calls feeling buoyant, only to figure out five minutes later that they hadn’t at all been given the go-ahead on a project. “Wait. What? I think they just said ‘no’?”

To his credit, Murray both nodded and laughed. “Target has what we call a feedback-rich culture,” he said gamely. Not to mention it’s a midwestern company to its “prairie roots.” But that, he added, is precisely why Target relies on outside contributors to come up with the biggest possible ideas. That way, as internal politics and processes inevitably chip away at that idea, they might still be left with something useful, beautiful, or unexpected at the end of the process.

Murray also outlined five tips for successfully managing collaboration and complexity:

1. Be Transparent
“You have to be clear that you’re collaborating with others,” he said. “And you have to figure out the roles and responsibilities of the partners and let them know what each is expected to do. Who’ll lead project management? Who’ll decide things? How will things get built?” There’s no one size fits all solution, he added, but making sure that the parameters of each new project are clear and understood from the start is key.

2. Play Nice
“When Target expects you to work with an agency that might be a competitor, throwing elbows won’t earn you the whole business,” said Murray firmly, adding that in fact, agencies that have tried to muscle in on others’ turf have lost credibility, not gained business. “Target won’t spend time disciplining agencies as if they’re unruly children. We won’t hire partners who won’t play nice.” For their parts, the agency creatives agreed this model of work is becoming the norm. “The speed of business demands this type of collaboration,” detailed Muckerman. “The days of an agency being briefed and disappearing for three months to come up with something fabulous doesn’t happen any more.”

3. Be Open
“Trust is the life blood of collaboration,” said Murray. “And good ideas can come from everywhere.” Huge is working on a new version of Target.com due to be launched in the fall. It’s a massive undertaking, as Target moves to design and manage the user experience of the third most trafficked ecommerce site in the world (it’s currently built on Amazon’s platform). “Everyone wants to go to same place so we have to figure out the roadmap to get there, not focus on who’s right or wrong,” said Huge’s Joe Stewart of the working process. “So there might be tons of fighting but we’re fighting together in the same direction.”

4. Stretch the Work
“We often find ourselves connecting the dots between agency partners and shaping a mass of ideas into something cohesive we can support and be enthusiastic about,” said Murray, who also spoke approvingly of the idea that “collaboration is the new competition.” Of course, not all Target ventures are wild successes, but one project with Mother certainly pushed the envelope: The company rented all the rooms on one side of the Standard hotel in New York, staged a fashion show on the High Line, and coordinated a choreographed performance art piece across the hotel rooms themselves. The whole affair was broadcast around the world. “There was an original score, 60 dancers, we had the lighting people from Daft Punk…” said Mother’s Michael Ian Kaye. “It was kind of a big ask.” Big ask = big get. So far, Murray said, the project has earned 180 million media impressions (he didn’t mention related sales figures.)

5. Talk Talk Talk
The final tip of the night was a reminder to keep the lines of communication open at all times. “We had a lot of meetings,” said Wolff Olins’ Muckerman drily of the process it took to develop the packaging and identity for Target’s Up & Up line of some 1200 own-brand products. “The hardest part of the process is to keep people aligned around the strategy.” Murray added: “The only way collaboration works is to be deliberate and consistent over communication. Invite participation; fearlessly put your worst ideas on the table along with the best and pressure test openly.”

As for the bull’s-eye, it turns out even the most successful piece of branding can at times be a millstone. “How many fucking bull’s-eyes do you want?” joked Kaye. “You should see my tattoos,” replied Murray.

Ryan Jacoby: The Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation

Ryan Jacoby heads up IDEO’s New York practice, and gave a talk at NYU/Poly this evening with an intriguing title: Leading Innovation: Process Is No Substitute. It points to the tension found in companies between right-brainers (for lack of a better term) espousing design, design thinking and user-centered approaches to innovation and the left-brained, more spreadsheet-minded among us. Now, bear in mind that most C-suites are dominated by the latter, all of whom are big fans of nice neat processes and who pay good money to get them implemented rigorously throughout their organizations. Jacoby’s point: processes are all well and good, but they don’t guarantee innovation, and in some cases they might even provide a false sense of security.

Ryan outlined what he described as the Seven Deadly Sins of innovation, which I’m sure will ring true for most people who’ve worked on such projects. They are:

1: Thinking the answer is in here, rather than out there
“We all get chained to our desks and caught up in email,” he said. “But the last time I looked, no innovation answers were coming over my Blackberry.” You have to get outside of the office, outside of the conference room and be open to innovation answers from unexpected places. Ryan makes himself take a photograph every day on the way to work, as a challenge to remember to look around him. (My homage to this idea above, a random image from last weekend’s jaunt to an icy upstate NY.)

2: Talking about it rather than building it
This one related to the last. At least here in the U.S., we live in a land of meetings and memos and lots and lots of discussion. Sometimes it’s more than possible that all this talk might prevent us from, well, actually doing anything. He gave a great example of an idea to bring “fun into finance”, and showed a mocked up scenario of a guy buying a pair of sneakers, at which point a virtual avatar danced on his credit card. Practical? Not the point. The unpolished prototype motivated the team and got them thinking differently.

3: Executing when we should be exploring
“This is huge for management types,” he said, going on to warn of the problem of trying to nail down a project way too early in the timeframe. “Who’s exploring? Who’s executing? Where is everyone in process?”

4: Being smart
“If you’re scared to be wrong, you won’t be able to lead innovation or lead the innovation process,” he said. This is huge. Innovation is all about discussing new ideas that currently have no place in the real world. If you’re only comfortable talking about things that *don’t* strike you as alien, chances are you’re not talking about real innovation.

5: Being impatient for the wrong things
Innovation takes time, but too often executives expect unrealistic results at an unrealistic clip. Be explicit about the impact that you expect.

6: Confusing cross-functionality with diverse perspectives
IDEO is an inter-disciplinary firm, mixing up employees with a whole host of backgrounds. That’s different from teams that simply mix up functions–and critical to ensuring a better chance at innovation. “Diversity is key for innovation,” said Mr J.

7: Believing process will save you
Here, Ryan showed a great image of vendors touting their wares at the Front End of Innovation conference in Boston. His point: you can’t simply buy your way to a soaring innovation strategy. Some of these products might be useful, sure, but they’re no substitute for real thought leadership. Or, as he put it, “learn the process, execute the process, and then lead within it.”