Skip navigation

Why Creative Firms Don't (Really) Scale

And How Yours Can
Topics: Strategy, Product
August 2013 | 

Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth, made his name on the idea that you should build and run your small business like you are going to franchise it, even if that’s not a goal. This means mapping out functions and processes, including proprietary strategic processes, to the point that anyone could come along, buy a franchise of your business and replicate your product and your success just from your operations manual and a little bit of training.

Most creative people resist this idea and many outright scoff at it. Abhorrence of routine is after all one of the costs of creativity. Consider this, however. If you argue that the magic of your firm cannot be franchised then you effectively argue that your business cannot be scaled.

During Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s heyday as the hottest ad shop on the planet, Chuck Porter famously posed the question, how big before you get bad? My glib answer is two offices, generally. That’s not necessarily true, or even fair, but the point is that without standardized IP in the form of codifying how you do what you do, scaling across multiple locations is a crapshoot. The likelihood that you will recreate what exists in location A over in location B is pretty low. You almost certainly won’t scale it to location C.

The fact that most firms do not have a meaningful, defined, demonstrable strategy model is the single biggest reason why creative firms do not really scale. Without one, there’s really nothing to scale.

How Did I Get Here? Twelve Years of Evolution

When I started my business development consultancy 12 years ago I was primarily focused on bringing a rigorous sales process to my clients’ firms. It wasn’t long though before I saw that the root of most business development challenges was in the “me-too” nature of the product on offer – a global glut of undifferentiated design firms and advertising agencies meant that the buyers had all the power in the buy-sell relationship. From that point onward, before I attempted to improve sales process I began with a focus on positioning, which when done properly allows firms to claw some of that power back.

I soon realized I was looking at positioning backwards. I was coming at it from the perspective of the firm (What was the firm focused on? What claim of expertise was it making?) and not from that of the marketplace or the client. That made sense, I realized, because I could only hope to impact those things at the firm level and trust they would translate to perception changes in the minds of the firm’s prospects. A claim of narrow focus doesn’t automatically translate to a change in abilities or perception however, so I needed to add another area of exploration and development to my offering. I called this area product – the skills, capabilities, processes and other assets of the firm that allow it to prove its claim of expertise.

Today, I see three variables to positioning that represent three steps: Positioning is strategy, articulated then proven. Strategy is essentially focus – the answer to the question what business are you in? Articulated speaks to the consistent, differentiated claim that you make to the market. Proven speaks to the product you’ve amassed that allows you to back up your claim.

Lessons Learned on Impact

If I look at where I’ve had the greatest impact on my clients’ businesses over the most recent years, it hasn’t been on strategy or the articulation of that strategy. It hasn’t been on sales process or CRM implementation, either. Similarly, my assistance in hiring business development personnel, the fourth P in my Four Ps model of positioning, product, process and personnel, has been so poor that I’ve abandoned it. The biggest impact I’ve had has been in the area of product – guiding my clients to not so much change what they do, but to change and codify how they do it through the development of strategy models that are proprietary to the firm. (I don't mean models for the firm’s own business strategy, I mean models for how it diagnoses and prescribes its clients’ challenges and solutions. This diagnosis and prescription constitutes the strategy component of a firm’s offering that precedes any creative development.)

If you had said to me a decade ago that I would spend this much time helping firms develop and codify strategy models I would have reminded you that I'm a sales consultant. It’s not that times have changed; it’s just that it’s taken me years to understand the importance of such models when it comes to building and proving expertise and longer again to formalize my own meta model to help firms develop theirs. There have been a lot of failed attempts at sales training along the way.

Efficiency Optimization or Radical Transformation?

I'm fortunate and grateful to have had many of my clients write recommendations for me on LinkedIn. Looking through them the other day I realized they fall into two categories. The first I would call polite endorsements. These tend to be from clients whose benefits were largely limited to some process improvement. “We paid Blair some money, he optimized X and we’re happy to recommend him to others.”

The second category I would call testimonies of radical transformation. These more effusive recommendations are almost all from firms that have codified a strategy model for how they do what they do and use that valuable new intellectual property in conjunction with a solid sales process to change what they’re hired to do and what they’re able to charge. The fact that business development is a lot easier (and cheaper – most of these firms have also virtually eliminated their cost of sale) is an almost unavoidable consequence of building a better firm.

The learning for me was not what a great consultant I’ve been over the years (there are fewer radical transformations than I would like and many clients I wouldn't dream of asking for a recommendation); the realization was that while sales process and sales training can be important elements of optimizing a firm’s business development performance, they alone do not radically transform a business. I have never seen a business transformed through sales process alone.

The Global Conundrum

Almost every global creative firm on the planet grapples with the same problem: a global distribution of offices has not made them a globally integrated firm. They are merely collections of regional firms, doing different things for different clients in different ways but sharing the same letterhead. There are few similarities to the product or process between location A and location B. There might be back-end synergies in accounting, IT, procurement and HR but very few globally distributed firms have achieved meaningful front-end synergies in things that matter to clients: consistency in product and experience, and as a result, a truly integrated global team. These firms covet but cannot land a real global account because they cannot convincingly make the case for the McDonald’s experience of a similar product and experience at every location.

Single-office firms not interested in scaling geographically but still interested in growing have the same challenge, because sustainable scalability in any form is largely reliant on codified expertise. If you have not codified how you do what you do then you don't really have a growth strategy.

The CEO of every hot shop of the day has shared Chuck Porter’s concern about growth ultimately contributing to failure. If the success of your firm is rooted in the magic of your people then every new hire and every departure represents a very real risk to the sustainability of the firm’s success. (So does time, as it’s been known to age people.) Creative hot shops never last because they never formalize let alone institutionalize their IP.

How Are You Doing? Take This Test

For those of you thinking you're doing all right on the codified expertise front, here is a brief, four-question test.

1. Do you reference your firm’s culture as a selling point to prospective new clients?

2. Is your methodology written out in an internal document?

3. Can your methodology be partially inferred from looking at your case studies?

4. Are new hires trained on the methodology before they are let loose on clients?

If you answered yes to number one or no to any of numbers two, three or four then you haven’t codified your expertise, regardless of that trademarked schematic on your website and in your pitch deck. If you passed, congratulations – my estimation is less than one percent of creative firms on the planet have properly codified their expertise in a meaningful, proprietary strategy model.

Culture: The Great Fallback

I always cringe when a principal or manager says “Our greatest assets go down the elevator at the end of the day.” It’s a nice thing to say to those assets but it’s also an admission that when you take the current people away there’s not much left. Great people are indeed assets, but without codified expertise great people become a mandatory requirement for sustaining even moderate success and the nebulous notion of “culture” is the only means left to try to attract and retain them.

The very best people however are interested in a culture of winning. They want a culture of “we are going to be better at what we do than anyone else and if you can't be that good then you can’t stay.” The best way to build a culture of winning is to codify your approach, continuously work to improve it and enforce standards on delivering it. Without all of this you’re left trying to build culture through beanbag chairs and beer Fridays. I'm not saying these things aren’t valued by employees, I'm only saying they shouldn't be the basis of your growth strategy.

R&D? No Thanks, We’re Creative.

A positive trend is that more and more firms have personnel dedicated to client strategy. Almost universally however, these positions are improperly mandated.

It should be the job of the firm’s strategy director, whatever the actual title, not to develop marketing strategy for clients but to develop strategy models for the firm, document those models and train staff on them. This is an R&D position – one that is largely unbillable. In fact, it’s probably the only real R&D a creative firm will ever do, and most won’t even do this.

Creative firms don't do R&D of any kind, including strategy models, for the same reasons they struggle with positioning: the strength of a creative personality is the ability to bring new perspective to problems. They are therefore drawn to the new and the different and they resist routine in all its forms. A creative person contemplating a standardized way of working brings the same irrational panic as a claustrophobic contemplating an elevator ride. Even if the people above are serious about it, it’s difficult to herd the creative cats below into the strategy model pen.

One of the smartest, most successful agency principal-entrepreneurs I know said to me years ago, “Blair, figure out what the problem is, solve it, automate it.” It was simple advice that might have easily been lost in a long dinner conversation on many topics, but in the moment she gave it to me I saw its value. She had made millions on it.

In your business, automating client strategy means codifying, documenting and training. Very few creative firms do this today. Very few firms will ever do this. But if you do this, your business will be radically transformed, your business development problems will be easily addressed or even start to disappear, and, your firm will be one of the few that is truly scalable.




Model Thinking is a brilliant, free online course from the University of Michigan on using models in life and business, delivered through The next course starts Oct. 7th.

Closing With Case Studies is a mastermind program I'm doing that works to translate the firm's IP into closing tools. It starts Sept. 16th. (It's not free.)

I recently discovered Flevy, which sells models and model-based business documents. Some of these might represent a good starting point for the development of your own models. If you do try them out please let me know your thoughts.

Finally, if you're not already on my mailing list and would like to be notified in the future when articles like this are published, sign up here.

Comments RSS

Craig Lindberg said:

Blair, if my 20+ years in a small creative agency has any value it is to concur and say you are spot on in your observations. We were guilty of making all the mistakes you note and then some but by the grace of God succeeded. We also did a few key things right like producing very attractive, compelling creative content solutions that made a lot of money for our clients and got many of them promotions. And you're right, it wouldn't scale. We were literally skilled craftsmen hammering out custom work for each and every client. It was almost tantamount to heresy to suggest anything that smacked of a packaged or off-the-shelf solution when the reality was there were situations when this would have worked. So call it tunnel vision or foolish pride. Then a few years ago after the umpteenth prospect meeting that went nowhere, something clicked and I realized many of our client prospects for the most part simply weren't really getting "it", that "it" being how we arrived at the solutions in all the wonderful, clever, award-winning case studies. So I fixed that by codifying the routine that we took all new clients through; a discovery, assessment and scope-of-work process. We had essentially been doing this informally all along but rolling it up into the creative development and screwing ourselves financially in the process. The benefit was almost immediate. Client and agency working together were able to arrive at conclusions that either supported the assumed issues, or put us on track to the real ones. Breaking down the issue also made it easier to create more accurate and detailed documents like creative briefs which brings us back to the point of your blog; we could begin to see recurring opportunities to apply scalable solutions that could be packaged such as website development based on dynamic CMS platforms, microsites for promotions, content strategy and development programs, and so forth. What you've shared today provides affirmation and direction for any agency executive who may be so lucky as to read it and have the light bulb blink on over their head :-)

Jon said:

I wholeheartedly believe this point on systems vs creative ideas is why native digital firms get it, while traditional creative firms (trying to do digital or otherwise) do not.

With digital, most principals have a programming background wherein they have experience systematically breaking down problems into a process for solving them. And, most of these systems have been put into what are called Design Patterns (such as Object Oriented Programming) for reuse time and again. So native digital folks get it, because it is how they have always functioned.

David Burn said:

I saw Warren Buffet speak at Capitalismstock in Omaha, a.k.a. the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting a few years ago, and the ONE THING that really stuck with me from his talk was this: "I won't buy a company that doesn't have a detailed Operations Manual."

As such, creating an Operations Manual for Bonehook, or codifying my I.P. as you say, is high up on my To-Do list, but I admit I don't exactly know where to begin. I have written many ads and many articles, but codifying my I.P. is new to me. Thanks for encouraging me to find a way.

David C. Baker said:

Terrific article, Blair. Your early reference to Michael Gerber brought a specific memory to mind. I invited him to keynote the very first MYOB Conference, which was held in Canc. He's short and stocky, and has a voice like an oak barrel. He started by telling all the principals there that they could learn a lot from McDonalds. :) I don't know how many of them walked out, but a lot did.

I'm spreading the word about this article tomorrow via Buffer.

Doug Lowell said:

I believe it was originally Jay Chiat, of Chiat/Day, who said I want to see how big we can get before we get bad. Back in the late eighties.

Peter Caputa said:

I agree that "diagnosis and presciption" are essential parts of selling value. I'll be doing a talk at Inbound (excited to meet you there, Blair). I'm calling it "Transformational Selling". It's a methodology that incorporates: diagnosis, goal setting and plan creation. The output is a step-change in client results; helping them achieve meaningful goals and overcome difficult challenges. Agencies that nail these pieces prove value from day one and long into the future.

Blair Enns said:

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I was hiking yesterday and just returned now.

David and David, I'm happy to be on the side of Warren Buffet and Michael Gerber in any debate. I knew I would lose readers at the mention of McDonald's but it had to be said. We take for granted how amazing it is to walk into one of their stores anywhere in the world and have the same product and experience, regardless of what you think of either.

Jon, I share your observation about digital firms (at least some of them) and would add that the same applies to industrial design firms (some of them). If I asked you to name a creative firm that has stayed at the top of their space for more than 15 years and that you would bet on them staying there a while longer you would probably say IDEO. I don't know IDEO but I'm guessing there is an "IDEO way" (I might be wrong.)

I work primarily with independent firms where ownership isn't separated from management but when I do work with a larger network-owned firm I'm always keen to see their methodologies. There aren't any. Or, there isn't anything close to what you as an outsider would expect. The irony is that for global firms, size is the first differentiator. After that, the only real means they have left to differentiate from other global firms is codified expertise because in a business development interaction, particularly late in the buying cycle when the buyer's motivation is fear of making a mistake, demonstrating codified expertise delivers the ultimate message to a nervous prospect: little variability in process equals little variability in outcome. Without overstating it, this is the biggest most transformative thing I have ever learned in 25 years in this business.

David C. Baker said:

Taking this a step further, I ask one specific question in every seminar for creative directors. I'm real specific about it for them. I ask them to "imagine that you were going to document a process for solving creative problems that could be used universally in your firm; in fact, it would be so differentiating that you'd require all new employees to participate in a deep training session during their on-boarding process." Then the simple question with that framework. "Picture a single person working uninterrupted for as long as it takes to develop this, and assume that this person is a genius with deep SME and very gifted at articulating process. How long would it take for them to document this?"

All the CDs in attendance would have to write their answer down, and then we would compare notes. The range was usually 1-3 days. I always told them that therein lies the problem. Their idea of "process" was barely descriptive, and not prescriptive at all. I think about 60-90 days would be required.

Peter Caputa said:

@David Baker.

I'm not so sure. We're not a creative firm. We're a software shop who creates marketing software. But, I could probably fill a bedroom with the process we've created, documented and trained our team on. We obsess over scale. We obsess over efficiency. That said, I think we're a very innovative and creative company. It's a tricky balance to ensure that process doesn't impede creativity and vice versa. But, I don't think it's that hard to create process. And it doesn't take that much time if you put an emphasis on it.

The great thing about having a culture that obsesses over it is that we're efficient at creating and revising processes. Not sure if you're familiar with agile software development. We apply these principles of software development to everything we do; marketing, sales, services. We're constantly tweaking and improving our processes. Sometimes adding. Sometimes taking things out. For example, our sales process is documented in google docs and a wiki. I have 12 sales managers and each of them owns a piece of that process. We are currently writing version 5 of the process. In one week, we've rewritten 1/4 of our process and added 4 new (optional) pieces to the process. Every manager leaves comments in the other steps of the process to ensure that the process pieces flow into each other and to suggest tweaks, additions to the other pieces. We're already specifying changes to our CRM and marketing software to track our efficacy as we roll out the changes. In less than one month before we've even rolled out training for the new processes, I have sales people testing the new processes and providing feedback to the managers. I already know that one of the tweaks have helped us close 18 customers.

Short story is: if a system values scale and therefore, process creation, process can be created quickly. I can't imagine working at a company that tries to do it differently every time. I actually don't think companies will be around much longer if that's the way they operate. The companies who focus on efficiency and creating repeatable processes will put them out of business.

Another quick story. I sat down with a marketer on our team the other day. I asked him, "What is the one thing you think marketing could do to get a step change higher lead growth? How can you go from generating 60k leads/month to 100k leads/month" He insisted that it was being more creative. My answer was, "Yes. Every time you sit down to create content or a campaign, you should be creative. You should brainstorm with peers and try to be as crazy creative as you can. But, the one thing that will get us out-sized returns is if we do more. How can you do more with your current resources?" The answer: create more scale-able processes for content and creative production. It's all about process.

Blair Enns said:

Peter, thanks for adding your perspective to this conversation. I'm looking forward to meeting you later this month.

Your contrasting experience to David's nicely illustrates the main issue: Hubsopt is a SAAS company with technology and therefore systems at its heart. Like Jon was saying earlier, it's in your company's DNA to embrace codification. Your experience is not indicative of a creative firm (design, advertising, etc.) though, where there exists an almost universal dislike, distrust, disinterest in routine, systems, processes, etc.

There is still a strong belief that creativity cannot be understood let alone codified. Wilde (I think) said, "Analyzing poetry is like dissecting a frog. It's boring and the frog often dies of it." Creative people feel the same way about subscribing to a methodology - it's boring and it will surely kill the subject.

Some of my most memorable conversations are with creative people who have reformed their beliefs on this front.

Michael said:

Can client strategy models be developed and implemented by any ambitious designer, who may have worked in one or two agencies for a few years, with 1) any degree of success and/or 2) any real understanding of how the strategy works? In my experience, creative people just try to "do good work" and hope the right clients notice.

Having also gotten my feet wet over the years in non-design, non-"creative" industries, process and procedure do seem to be critical for success. Much of the employment I've had outside of creative services has been for customer service call centers, in industries ranging from retail goods to financial services. In the call center "industry" you had better believe that expertise and strategy is codified, down to the dotted i and crossed t. Everything seems to be about measured, quantifiable results measured in real-time. Very few graphics/ad people I've met make the connection or have a clue about that.

Creative people, in my opinion, need to get out of the design-specific comfort zone, stop worrying about getting their write-up and portfolio in the trade magazines, and learn a little about things like Six Sigma that their clients are using. What creative firms actually use a Six Sigma process for creative? If you have some examples let me know!

David C. Baker said:


Thanks, Peter. Blair brought up the distinction around different mindsets so I won't belabor that. I'm a consultant to mainly the "creative" field, though I'd rather call it the "marketing" field. In that lasso I include advertising, pr, design, and in-house departments. But I've also worked with ca. 60 pure-play digital firms, whether focused largely on app dev or simply modifying an off the shelf CMS. I'm pretty comfortable in that environment. I do think there is a lot of creativity in your world, too, around the CDJ before, during, and after the transaction (or whatever the s/w is accomplishing).

But for a designer, e.g., imprisonment would be defined as any sort of constraint on their creativity, and process would pretty much be at the top of the list. Maybe right below that would be a scientific usability measurement of their ui/ux work, since they usually aren't very good at it. :)

Peter said:

Thanks for the response, Blair. I understand that I come at it from a different angle and different background and perspective. Some of the biggest breakthroughs in my career are when I figure out how to marry someone else's approach to my problem, though, or my approach to someone else's problem. Hopefully, our opposing perspective on the way a company can operate shows agencies that they don't have to choose between being creative or embracing process. A key thing I was trying to say is that by embracing a culture where we are constantly seeking to improve or change or even throw out our processes, we are creative. I'm hoping that more and more agencies will see that the process of creating process is creative and that the output of the process can still be creative... The process is a living, breathing thing. And it creates creative things.

My experience is not dissimilar to yours when talking to agencies, except that I started by working with very small agencies. Out of the gate - we often lose marketers - in-house and agency - when we introduce our inbound marketing 'methodology' as a tried, tested and true way to grow traffic, leads and sales. Sometimes, we're a bit overzealous to explain it. But, many times, just saying the word "methodology" freaks many marketers out. So, I think we are on a common mission of helping marketers get over this fear. What we've seen is that if hey don't embrace the methodology, there is no reason for them to work with us. Many agencies like to "figure things out" as they go and resist boiling their job down to something that is predictable and measurable. We can't work with that. We are all about delivering predictable and measurable because it creates a system that produces better and better results over time; it's improvable. At this point, we have 100s of case studies and 1,000+ agencies we've converted. Most are smaller agencies willing to challenge the status quo. Many of them have innovated on top of our methodologies and created their own, leveraging ours as a basis. We love that, as you might imagine, because we're constantly tweaking our methodology ourselves internally. We learn from our partners and vice versa. Interestingly enough, 5 years in, many of these agencies aren't very small anymore. They're now competing with bigger agencies on big pieces of business.

One last thing that is somewhat related: I don't think agencies should strive to create proprietary processes. Instead, I think they should focus on creating out-sized results at the expense of creating proprietary processes. And they should focus on building systems that codify their process. That can be proprietary, but the process itself is better open-sourced. Processes tend to stagnate if new eyes and minds don't tweak them and improve them and experiment with them in specific situations. And processes shared provide clarity to prospects and clients and collaborators. My experience in working with smaller agencies is that they all benefit if they share openly with each other. They have much more to learn from each other if they all agree to share. We've created a culture like that among our partners and it's pretty awesome. It's a lot more fun too. You'll see it at Inbound in a few weeks. See you then. Thanks for starting the conversation.

Peter said:

@David Baker. I know who you are. Fan of your stuff and have heard many great things about you and your company.

I totally get where you're coming from and agree with your perspective. (Sorry if it came off combative or argumentative. Not my intention.) I've worked with enough designers to see it firsthand too. From my vantage point, worlds are colliding pretty fast, though. :-)

Blair Enns said:

2.5 years ago I received a call from a former E-Myth consultant who was trying to sell me some business process software that he had built. I wasn't interested in it for my business, but I was preparing for a seminar on process-framed case studies and I thought I would check it out and maybe I could use it to create a DIY package for my clients to codify their expertise.

I agreed to a one-hour demo during which we took a small part of my business (I don't remember what) and documented the process, work plan and other elements of the function. At the end of the demo I said, "I'm not interested in your software, but what you just did for me for the last hour - I want that." I hired him on a weekly consulting basis (and yes, bought the software) and 30 months later my weekly call with him is one of the most valuable things I do.

I don't have everything documented perfectly yet, but there are large parts of my business that anyone could run by logging in and following the right work plans. Each is assigned to a role, which ends up creating a job description, evaluation criteria, etc. Everything is connected. Once something is codified, the routine stuff gets automated. I joke that once I'm hired, I log into salesforce and press Launch. It's not quite that simple but it's not far off.

If you step back and look at the size of the project, it can be daunting, but I don't. One week at a time I make a little more progress as a little bit more of the business is codified. I'm talking IP and operations.

I'm not sure if I sufficiently made the point in the article but codified expertise is the best closing tool ever.

Mike Maddock said:

I appreciate your point of view, your obvious expertise, and your humility.

I saw Michael Gerber with David in Mexico and a few times thereafter at EO and YPO events. I agree with his thesis that businesses fail because growing and running a business is often a completely different job than doing what you love to do. So if you are a great painter and want to grow a business, you'll likely do far less painting. Whoops.

I'd argue that many folks in the creative space are great painters that don't want to give up painting. This is fine as long as you are aware of the choices you are making and the outcomes.

I believe awareness here is the key. Finding a balance between discipline and inspiration is what made Roy and Walt Disney so powerful; the yin and the yang; the Jobs and the Wozniak. You don't have to be the one managing the process but you must make sure that you strike this balance and truly (TRULY) value the complimentary gifts of your partner.

So, I would counter your "it's all about process" statement with: "it's all about balance" and if you want to paint, you'd better find someone just as passionate about making frames.

Well done brother Blair.

David C. Baker said:

I can't stay out of this thread. :)

Just a quick thought for which there's lot of research to demonstrate its veracity: the best creators of process are the worst at complying with it. And of course the opposite is true. That throws an interesting wrinkle into things.

If you want a great example, think timesheets.

Tim said:

I'm designer with 19+ years of deep expertise in product design, user experience design, and design management. I'm a huge fan of Blair and David and what each of you write and for what you advocate, but I'm increasingly skeptical about whether proprietary processes in design really exist at all (trademarks and claims of being proprietary notwithstanding), and whether they should or even can exist. I'm still formulating my own thinking on this, so unfortunately I can't offer a cogent counter-argument here. But I can say that my thinking is influenced by the realization that design is an integrative discipline that floats between things and that assembles solutions to problems through synthesis-- indeed at its best design questions the very nature of problems themselves-- and because of the complexity that comes wit this, there's probably no meaningful way for processes to be made proprietary. I'm not quite ready to say that claiming that design processes can be proprietary misunderstands and misconstrues what design is, but I'm getting close.

There are of course new processes, techniques and best practices that continually arise and evolve within the design and marketing agency worlds-- and some of these do in fact come with claims of IP-- but in principle I don't think these processes are *really* proprietary despite their claims. I'd like to be proven wrong-- I wish someone *could* point me to a process or technique that is truly, genuinely proprietary within the consulting space and that has been effective over the long term.

I'm very familiar with the frogdesigns, IDEOs and Ziba Designs of the world, and I've worked at some of these places. IDEO might make a claim for the "IDEO way," but it's dubious and highly unlikely that it's a process that new employees are trained on, or that is unique to IDEO. For example, IDEO's advocacy for "design thinking" as a process or discipline within the consultancy model has mostly been ineffective precisely because the process and techniques that embody it have not been able to meaningfully reach into organizations with any power to reshape them for the long term. Similarly, ask McKinsey, PWC, Boston Consulting and KPMG how the strategic/management consulting model with all of its claimed proprietary magic quadrants and the like has worked out for them and their clients over the long term in terms of instilling meaningful change. Meaningful contextual change (i.e. strategic design) can really only come from within an organization, and as design becomes to be seen as a strategic capacity there's less value in a company or a municipality outsourcing it. Claiming that a process or an approach is proprietary to a consultancy isn't going to change that.

As an aside, I would highly recommend the essay "Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary" by Dan Hill, formerly of Helsinki Design Lab. In the essay, Hill makes a case for what he calls "strategic design," which is focused on addressing wicked problems (as defined by Rittel and Webber in "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" - or "fourth order" problems in design (as defined by Richard Buchanan- see: Somewhere in Hill's essay is the genesis of my thinking about proprietary processes in design and whether they can exist...

Blair Enns said:

Great contribution, Tim - thank you. It brings us to a point that I thought would get covered earlier and that is the distinction between design firms and marketing or communication firms. I'm not sure I'll do the topic justice here now but here it goes...

The first point is that the value of a methodology is not in its propriety. The value comes from not reinventing the wheel every time. If I ask you to dig a ditch of a certain width, depth and length, you'll dig a ditch of a certain quality (x) in a certain timeframe (y). If I ask you to dig 100 ditches you will improve your quality and speed. You will, from repeated observation and repeated and iterative behavior, develop a method to diagnose & prescribe (determine what tools are needed, what shape of ditch the ground can support, etc.) and apply (dig, remove waste, etc.).

If you hire a new ditch-digging employee do you set him free to learn for himself what took you 100 ditches to learn, or do you provide him with a manual and some training? In ditch-digging, consulting or almost any profession you would argue that you train your employees, but in creative professions employees almost always arrive with the assumption that they will already know what to do.

In my first job as a young agency account coordinator I was told to write a marketing plan for a client. There was no guidance, no template, no documentation on how to write a marketing plan, what should be contained in it, etc. Sure, I had a written a few in school but this was real now. I assumed some guidance would be forthcoming, none came and I was too proud and confused to ask. Cue the disaster. At the time I was embarrassed at my role in it. Now I wonder what the hell the senior people at the firm did all those years.

The second point, and what I was alluding to off the top, is that these conversations can get a bit esoteric when applying them to the broad discipline of "design". Most design-based firms however are not in the design business - they are in the communication, marketing or product development business and design is a tool to help them do one of those three things. When you start applying this idea of codification to your discipline as opposed to the client problems that you solve it invites all the wrong type of debate.

I know one thing for sure. If you put two design firms of equal quality, experience and price together in a head to head competition, the one that can prove they follow a defined methodology will outsell the other one because it's easy for a client to infer the benefits of codified expertise.

Imagine asking your cardiac surgeon, "So, how does this surgery work?" and having him reply, "Surgery is an organic process. I'm going to cut you open and figure it out once I'm in there." Design firms imply this all the time.

LeAnn Wilson McGuire said:

Just saw this article and LOVED IT!!! Brilliant thoughts! Well put. Thanks for sharing!

Add a Comment


Find Me

Wear some comfortable shoes and bring a walking stick.

Find Out More

What is life like in Kaslo? Check out the Picasa album.

Follow Me

My Twitter feed.