02/29/2016 01:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Design Philosophy -- Leading Creatives


Managing creative professionals for breakthrough innovation requires finesse beyond traditional management since pressure, micro-management and extrinsic rewards have been shown to stifle the creation of breakthrough innovation.

As a chief designer for BMW Group and before that, head of exterior design at Fiat Centro Stile, Chris Bangle amassed a great deal of experience in leading creative teams within very different cultures. He now heads up Chris Bangle Associates in Clavesana, Italy, near Turin.

At a recent presentation given at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he shared his approach for managing Creatives. This is the second article in a series of three, covering design heuristics, leading creatives and designing breakthrough innovation.

You read Lincoln on Leadership. How does one manage people for breakthrough innovation as opposed to incremental innovation?
After reading Gore Vidal's "Lincoln," "Lincoln on Leadership" is a great book to read concerning the tactics and inspiration one can get from that great designer/President (I think the authors could make a good case for Lincoln having "designed" America into what it is today).

The concept of "breakthrough innovation" is a slippery one to attach to good management processes however. It may be necessary to just chuck everyone overboard and drive the ship onto the rocks yourself.

This is especially true if motivating one's teammates means taking them out of their comfort zone (certainly the idea of flying into the cold scary air -- as opposed to sitting snugly in a warm nest -- doesn't come naturally to all baby birds... a swift kick may be needed to get them started). While "incremental innovation" rings of "partial pregnancy" -- either it is an innovation or it is not -- "evolution" implies a sort of natural change that is inevitable given the circumstances and requires lots of small and big innovations to move it on its way.

The pace of the change is really the factor that counts; that is the difference between the "punctuated equilibrium" theory (no change for a long time and then lots of change in a short time) and the standard model of evolution (small changes continuously).

This time factor combined with our diverse notions of "change" itself (one man's revolution is another man's evolution) needs constant revision and energizing by the management; time and change are inertial concepts subject to the frictions of life and business and when left alone tend to continue in one comfortable direction or slow to a stop.

So now we come to an answer for this question of management style under diverse conditions of time and change requirements; it is very difficult to leave the intensity of a short-term/big jump innovation to a laissez-faire leadership style.

The challenge is how to do this without interfering and is one of the reasons that such teams are often sent off into the wilds for their own protection. A really wise manager knows how to take himself out of the loop without releasing responsibility. I tried many systems and approaches over the years to varying degrees of success.

I think there are many ways that work but all are contextually sensitive to the extreme. Lincoln himself said to General Grant, "When you are in the field, you are the Union," an altogether amazing display of self-restraint and empowerment.

How does one build a breakthrough innovative culture (Great People, Great Projects, and Great Fun)?
This mantra--"Great People, Great Projects, and Great Fun" -- was how Chuck Pelly described the success of DesignworksUSA to its new owners, BMW. And I am sure they had their share of breakthrough innovative ideas and designs; certainly many more than ever saw the light of day once the client's own management got through with them (true for BMW as well).

Culture, as I have said above, is a combination of 'How' you do things, coupled with 'Why' you are doing them. Begin there, and ask if the Raison d'être for your design group is the right one, or, if it is understood and shared by everyone. Certainly your methodologies must be in line with your objectives and the people selection is a part of that, especially if a measure of fun is a part of your metrics.

Two truisms meet in culture building: that "hell is other people" and "you get the hell you deserve". Look to yourself first as a manager or leader and in what capacity you have been tasked with "breakthrough innovation". Does the whole idea of it even come naturally to you? If not -- and yet you still must somehow perform -- think back to my adage: "when people fail, systems take over and vice versa". Start working on your systems, or farm the job out to people who do not need them.

Recall that just as 'no man is an island', no system or person is without a context. Simply hiring a top performer from another company and expecting the same success under your roof carries risks akin to uprooting a pretty flower growing in the sunlight and replanting it under your basement stairs. Try not to look surprised when it wilts.

"Build it and they will come" is more than just a line from a movie; talent draws talent and systems breed systems. Don't look for one-shot results to be a sign of a healthy culture, or be put off by the first failures. Endurance is a sign of greatness and a hallmark of sustainability, two fine concepts of the sort of metrics in which one might really be interested.