In-house Issues: Be a Farmer Not a Factory Worker

I’ll never forget the knowing look that passed between the 2 consultants I had engaged to help improve my team when I was at Gund. Emily Cohen, who is a regular contributor to this blog, and Angela Long had just presented their assessment of my group along with recommendations. Emily, though, had added an aside about the personalities of the designers in my team and the need to take that into account when implementing their recommendations. My response was to be politely dismissive. Then came that look – part amusement, part compassion, part simple acknowledgement.

It’s taken me a good number of years to understand what prompted that look. I had casually waved off their sound advice to take the “soft” issues into account in favor of my strongly held belief in the all-encompassing power of org charts, position descriptions and SOPs. I now know that to be only one part of a much bigger picture I must take into account when creating and managing, dare I say nurturing, a creative team.

My folly became starkly clear to me while I was watching an online video of a presentation made by Ken Robinson at a past TED conference. He was speaking about the failure of our education system and he used a powerful analogy to make the distinction between the current paradigm and a new option filled with possibility.

The metaphor he used was likening the current system to an assembly line or a machine running a rigid, standardized linear process that championed conformity. The alternative he offered was to treat the education of children as the organic practice of farming where the end result is not predetermined. The creation of a nurturing environment, much as a farmer tills and fertilizes soil, Robinson proposed, should be the priority of any educational entity.

In my effort to assist in-house designers better integrate themselves into the corporate environment, I’ve often advocated adopting many of the left-brained business world’s mindsets, cultures, policies, processes and procedures. I now want to add a very important addendum – bring the best of the design mindset to bear on those processes and procedures. The more humanistic and organic values and practices that will allow you and your team to take form by taking into account the unique environments you are all working in rather than predetermining what the outcome will be.

This is not to say you shouldn’t have well defined goals, but they (and you) should be broad and flexible enough to allow for them to evolve. The even more important consideration is you and your team. None of you neatly fit into an org chart, performance matrix or position description. You all have obvious skills and not-so-obvious potentials, dreams and goals. These attributes don’t fit neatly into the Industrial Age model. They do, though, blossom in the nurturing Agricultural model. Be a farmer not a factory worker.