Steve Peters

Experience Design

Creativity and the Hairball

I saw a great example today of what happens when the corporate and creative worlds collide. Seems ABC's World News Tonight broadcast from Google headquarters, and they posted a video of reporter Bob Woodruff touring the facility. Here's the video. Woodruff runs around interviewing employees, commenting on their workspaces, on how Google refers to their headquarters as a "campus," points out things like free food, treadmills, scooters in the halls and toys in people's offices! He asks one guy what he does for Google and what this stuff is, and if it helps him do his job better.

Now, something about this video irked me. Quite a few things, actually. First of all, this sort of atmosphere isn't exactly new. Tons of companies practice this sort of thing, and have been for a while. Have they never visited Disney or Pixar, or even Microsoft? They have a little different ethic, based on fostering creativity, and it works for them, or they wouldn't do it.

What really bugged me was Woodruff's seeming arrogance throughout the whole thing. It's like he thought he was talking to children, when you know most of these guys gotta have IQs like a bazillion times higher than his. Maybe he was just intimidated, but he really seemed to be looking down his nose the whole time, even while touting how Google is making billions of dollars. "Check out this office.....it's got TOYS everywhere. Is this for creativity??"

Now, this sort of clash is nothing new. Corporate-types have always had trouble relating to Creative-types, and vice-versa (I'll try to refrain from referring to them as them and us as us). It's not that we have different ways of fostering and measuring productivity, it's just that one side thinks theirs is the 'right way' to do it. For everyone.

And that's always really peeved me.

There's a great little book out called Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon McKenzie. Gordon worked for years at Hallmark Cards, and he has been a creative guy in a corporate world all of his life. Reading this book really changed my life, as it regards my work, and if you haven't read it, I really, really highly recommend you do. Especially if you work in an office.

In the book, he gives a particular illustration that has always stuck with me, about how the suits think differently than the Hawaiian shirts, so to speak. I'll just quote it here for you.

Picture in your mind's eye a pastureland of gently rolling hills painted in the rich greens of early spring. Within the meandering confines of a zigzag, split-rail fence stands a scattered herd of black-and-white Holstein dairy cows. The sun is shining, and some of the cows have sought the cool protection of the field's occasional massive shade trees. Others are clustered idly around a large, sun-sparkling pond. Most are quietly eating grass. One regurgitates her cud and chews it.

Outside the zigzag fence stands a rotund gentleman in a $700 power-blue, pinstripe suit. He is leaning over the fence - as best he can. One hand is holding his unbuttoned jacket against his generous belly so that the suit's fine cloth will not be soiled by the fence's grimy rails. His other hand is shaking a stern finger at the cows. He shouts:

"You slackers get to work, or I'll have you butchered!"

He then goes on to point out that what the man doesn't understand is that, even as he threatens them, the cows are performing the miracle of turning grass to milk. Nor does he understand that shouting won't cause them to produce more any faster. The cows were, in fact, producing. Chewing grass and laying around and playing was every bit as important a part of the process as being hooked up to the milking machine.

The creative process is the same way. The visible part of it to others only occurs near the end of it, the equivalent of the milking machine. Problem is, you can't start a cow there, or leave it hooked up to the machine 24/7, can you? They'll stop producing real fast.

Creatives need to feed the artist inside in order to produce effectively. Woodruff obviously didn't get it. "Does it [the toys and knickknacks] up your productivity??" he asks the software engineer behind the desk who's probably making twice what he is. There's that P word again. Woodruff then really reveals his true attitude: "Now, do you need some adult supervision when you work at a company like this?"

My entire life I've fought against people who give me a task, tell me what the end-product needs to be, but then proceed to tell me HOW I will go about doing it. Wrong! I just never understood why they thought my methodology was any of their business, as long as I produced for them in the end, which I always did.

Once, I was actually called in by a bunch of bosses who told me they didn't like the way I was doing things! However, when pressed, they had absolutely no complaints about my results at all. They were very pleased with what I was doing. They just didn't approve of how I was getting there.

Why should anyone care if you do your best work at 1am? Why should HR care if you want to have a milk jug as a wastebasket instead of the generic black plastic one that's on their "approved" list? Or jalapeño party lights? Or a Strongbad plushy? (Not that I have any of these things). Yes, yes, I'll admit that there's a place for decorum and coordinated furniture, I suppose. I'm not talking absolutes here.

So, Corporate America, listen up! It's not a right way and a wrong way. It's just two different but equally valid ways. Stop yelling at the cows and let them do what they do best, their way, or your milk may end up being a little sour.

But c'mon. Toys in your office and scooters and free food? Which is BETTER?