CEO’s Arent Anthropologists!

I read a lot of blogs, but I usually find myself responding to the Business Week Blogs more than others. Today is no exception. Bruce Nussbaum recently gave a speech at the Royal College of Art stating that CEOs Must Be Designers, Not Just Hire Them. Think Steve Jobs And iPhone.

My Response:

So Bruce, I have to disagree: CEO’s should be CEO’s, but a good CEO knows how to spot talent. But I do agree with the sprit of the statement, today MBAs and designers, need more than a solid background in a single discipline, its part of the rebellion against the specialists. There are already programs trying to address this, such as the exchange between the Art Center College of Design and INSEAD. When you say CEOs must be designers (and I might say they need to be anthropologists) I think you are wishing for the extreme end of the pendulum swing that started when we all realized that teams often worked better than individuals. In the dusty past I wrote on the importance of the multi-disciplinary team: gett the designer, engineer, researcher and marketer in one room and you can avoid the silo effect. It was an interesting idea at the time that many companies tried to make work, but it was also wrong. People still could not speak each others language. The result was often no result at all or something pretty mediocre (a classic design by committee problem) or worse, it turned into a cage match and a struggle for power. It was those early attempts that made a few of us realize that you needed multi-disciplinary people. That rare bird that not only had an eclectic background of business, design, research, and strategy among others, but could synthesize information across those disciplines’s to get a new insight. But I think even this is old news for most of us at the center of the work today. It is just these multi-talented folks that we are looking for in my office. When my friends that are recruiters call me to see if I know of anyone for a particular position, this is what they are looking for as well. But its not that these people are in-depth experts in all those areas that matters. What matters is they have enough aptitude for a variety of fields and enough common language and empathy to work in teams with people that have various and complementary strengths

To suggest that CEO’s should be designers, designers should be MBAs and MBA’s need to sketch would be, in most cases, a tragic mistake if taken literally. A friend that chairs a small anthropology department and I were discussing your blog the other day, part of my on-going conspiracy to get academics interested and enthusiastic about business. I argued that what the CEO needs to know about design is the difference between Great, Good and Crap and how design drives and is the customer facing expression of corporate strategy. This is not news, people have been talking about the strategic value of design for years, even if not acting on it with great effect. Her take is that the CEO needs to know enough about design to get the hell out of the way and let the pros that hopefully are smarter than they are to get on with it. It’s the whole “Get the right people on the bus, and let them do their jobs” strategy. The idea that people should be able to do it all is an over-enthusiastic reaction to what we have learned over the years about the dangers of hyper-specialization. To quote myself (I am not a journalist or an academic, so I can do that, right?) from a comment in another BW blog: Steve Jobs didn’t show up in Cupertino one day with a pair of stone tables that had the iTunes business model on one tablet and a CAD drawing of the iPod on the other. The iTunes explosion was the result of a lot of people at Apple working hard, not to mention the MP3 players that came before, and a visionary leader in Steve Jobs that understood the significance of putting it all together. That’s the key: its not a CEO that can design, but a CEO that can weave together diverse threads of understanding to figure out what’s next.

We have all heard the story of the amazing product by that a lone smart person in the bowels of some corporation who stuck by and fought for it tooth and nail for despite everyone telling them it was a bad idea. The way the story usually goes is: The product is a hit and that CEO or some other muckity-muck praises the tenacious engineer, project manager, etc for bucking the system, pressing on in the face of adversity, etc. How come no one turns around to the CEO and others and says “Ummm, why are you proud of the fact that you can’t tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one?”

CEO’s don’t need to be designers, they need to be critical thinkers that can weigh the merits of strategy, markets, risk and know how to find people that can help them place design strategy in that context. Job has been a huge and positive influence on design both aesthetically and how it can drive bottom line revenue growth. But not just because he has a deep intuitive understanding of design, but because he understands how to use all the resources available to him to tap into deep needs and meet those needs in clever and compelling ways.

By the way, your word processor made a wee mistake. You say “You, as designers, can’t just do ethnology anymore.” I know you mean “ethnography.” But for your readers: An ethnology is a study and analysis done by comparing across cultures to answer big questions like “How common is the incest taboo?” Ethnography is the study of a culture of particular group of people, for example a tribe in the Amazon or in the case of Design Ethnography, young video game players. An ethnology is done by comparing multiple ethnographies.