Degradation by committee

As managers charged with the successful delivery, on time and on budget, of a specific creative task, we go through a process of careful selection of creative talent, briefing and review. We combine the skills and talents of several people, often adding up to many decades of experience and knowledge. We go through review and evaluation and finally have a product we can show to others. Then what do we do? We hold a meeting…

Do the people who are invited to the meeting have the same level of expertise as the creatives involved in making the product? Have they been parties to the complicated back and forth, work-in-progress negotiations? Did they witness the blind alleys, the rejected options and the exhaustive experiments? Almost definitely not. They still have an opinion, though.

“They sit there in committees day after day, and they each put in a color and it comes out gray.” ~ Allan Sherman

In most organisations, it is rare to find more than a handful of managers who can truly make a positive beneficial addition to an outsourced creative project and most of those people are tied up in their own high pressure work. However, in most meetings, ask someone for an opinion and nine times out of ten, you’ll get one, even if that person prefaces their comment by something like ‘well, I don’t really know, but…’

The problem with creative projects is that by their very nature, they usually present something new. If the work is good, it’s probably so new to people that it garners a fair amount of negative opinion and it’s a lot easier to reject a new idea than to endorse it. The reason for this is simple and obvious: nay-sayers are never criticised for being wrong. Usually, by the time they are proven wrong, they have either been forgotten about or can rationalise their damning prediction. (‘Well, of course, it wasn’t possible to know that the market was going to change so radically between the design phase and launch’, or ‘Well, if they’d said they were going to do it in black…’).

“Consensus management has no place in innovation.”

It takes a very confident manager to ignore the nay-sayers. The larger and more important the decision, the more likely it is that the committee stage will degrade the product. A manager needs a lot of authority and self-belief to push through a product launch, committing the company to vast production and marketing costs when s/he knows that Y-san in sales will pop up again the moment there’s a problem to remind everyone that he always said it was a bad idea.

It’s no coincidence that the most innovative companies usually thrive and survive at the hands of self-confident and forceful leaders. They are the people who can afford to take risks and they stand little chance of being fired if they get some things wrong. Middle managers, who often live in fear of losing their jobs have to be extraordinarily brave to push work through that will be truly creative and innovative.

It’s the task of the directors and higher echelon managers to recognise this, to support and encourage risk taking and even expect mistakes. And the role of creative managers is to be confident in their expertise and the talents of the creative people they employ, and not allow a committee to degrade the work.

“A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually” ~ Abba Eban

When it comes to big creative projects, the difference between what works commercially and what doesn’t is often down to keeping true to the original vision and not allowing the work to be diluted by those who don’t belong in the creative process. Consensus management, important in many business areas, has no place in innovation.

A multi-national consumer products company decides to re-design its most profitable range and expand it into wider, international markets. They make detailed plans with their agency which brings in specialist consultants who in turn bring in five sets of international design specialists (who all get paid a significant pitch fee, because they recognise the people they must employ are successful and busy). After months of competitive pitching and shortlisting, the team is chosen, fully briefed, deadlines agreed, contracts sorted and 50% of the fees are paid in advance.

Specialist production people are brought in to monitor progress and report back to head office. Designs are submitted, discussed and altered. Product mock-ups are made and evaluated. Print and TV advertising is discussed, sketched out and story-boarded. Type faces are designed and names researched and trademarked. By the final delivery, six months of work by dozens of talented people have produced something that the creatives are happy with, the intermediate specialist agency is happy with, the main agency is happy with, the client is happy with, their marketing people are happy with and even the test retailers are happy with. Finally it goes for board approval and even they are happy with it.

Over breakfast, the board Chairman mentions to his wife that they are about to spend fortunes re-branding a major product. He tells her what they are going to call it. She hates it – it reminds her of something she particularly dislikes. The project is cancelled. (Hopefully, everyone gets paid.)

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