Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Connecting the dots

Every organization, by its very nature, organizes in ways that seem to make sense: skill sets, customer segments, day shift and night shift, functions, cliques, long timers and short-timers. If there are more than about 3 people at a company, specialization begins to take over and the first silos are seeded. It's natural, it's expected - in fact, it makes a ton of sense to divide and conquer, based primarily on what you're good at. Like-minded people partner up.

Of course, over time this specialization, whether it's by product or skill set or geography, starts to slow the communication between functions. Insulation, busy-ness, and laziness settle in - and before you know it you've started cultivating a "throw-it-over-the-fence" methodology for just about anything from design to finance to human resources. Dysfunction is born. Out of resentment. Out of misunderstanding. Out of expectation and stress and fear.

Silos suck. It's true. Specialization is necessary, but it breeds clubs and ivory towers and all manner of hostility, unnavigable processes and "we've always done it this way" mentality which tends to be a huge reason why established companies turn into dinosaurs and are flipped on their backs, helpless, by the next generation of young, disruptive and by-all-accounts "disorganized" start-ups and boutiques.

So here's a truth: large, organized companies value dot-connectors. And are also sometimes terrified by them. Dot-connectors can be perceived as foreign bodies. Large companies may defend themselves without really knowing why. Sometimes status quo is mistaken for stability. And stability is GREAT when you've established a niche, credibility, status and expertise. Gurus love to sit on top of the mountain because it never moves. Gurus don't tend to sit on top of a speeding truck going 90 mph through downtown Bangalore. (I know, I know - NO ONE goes 90mph through Bangalore).

So what's a dot-connector? Someone who can step back, squint, and see a different picture. Someone who collects a lot of information, across teams or products or functions or customers or industries or trends or geographies or cultures, and makes a new shape. Someone who builds on things that exist in unexpected and crazy ways. Or takes the picture and flips it over and says "What if we did it like this?"

Dot connecters are curious.
Dot connectors are brave.
Dot connectors are not afraid to look a little weird. Or outright insane.

Ideas don't just spontaneously occur.
Ideas are connections.
And ideas, by their very definition, are potentially dangerous, disruptive and destructive to the status quo: the silo.

Silos are like castles.
Ideas are like trolls toting boulder slingshots: we laugh at them until they rip the first humongous hole in the impenetrable fortress. And then we wonder if we can join them. Except they REALLY do smell terrible. And they look kind of ugly and.. HOLY SHIT they just ripped another huge hole in the castle.

Be a dot connector. Be brave and curious and weird.

Leave your chair. Leave your classroom or dorm or campus. Leave your department. Leave your product. Leave your building. Leave your industry. Leave your country. Leave your "comfort zone".

Expose yourself to some other stuff. Think dangerously. Talk to other connectors. Then bring it back.
And rip a huge, idea-hole in a castle of your own.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dream team

If you could hand-pick the next ten people you'd work with, who would they be?
Do you have a list of names?
Or a list of attributes?
Or a list of companies that seem to be doing certain things exceptionally well?

Would you pick people you want to work with?
Or drink beer with?
Or both?

Would you pick people who are younger than you? Or older?
People who think like you do? Or people you disagree with - but in a good way?
People who fired you once? People you had to let go?

I have a dream team.
I have 10 people I'd like to work with... or work with again.

Some of them are wildly creative.
Others are dependable, down-to-earth, no-bullshit types.
Some of them, I've done some of the best work of my life.
Others, I stood by and wondered what if... what if we'd been allowed to do the really cool thing we had to leave on the shelf?
Some of them have dramatically transformed their industries.
Others quietly and thoughtfully reinvented themselves.
I've been fortunate to work with some people I consider superstars.
And some people who were quiet, unassuming heroes.

I'm gardening that dream team.
Looking for ways to meet them, reconnect with them, stay in touch with them.
Constantly holding up new candidates and appraising them as the culture I'm serving and the work I'm doing changes.

Experience (quality, not quantity).

How do you measure your dream team?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Freshman Commencement

A truck passed me on my Saturday-morning bike ride - clearly a college student (a freshman, I imagined, given the trailer they were hauling) off to new adventures. And I started thinking about my first pass at college - the one that didn't stick. And my second one, that did.

I could wax philosophical for you all on the dramatic difference in both my physical and mental states as I started and restarted my college path, but I'm going to keep it to a few simple points:

Go to class. Every time. This is what all that money was for.
If you scheduled an early class, WAKE UP. You are a responsible person now.

Participate. That's part of your job in school. Don't be selfish. When they accepted you, they thought you were going to be a cool student who would make the college better. Live up to that.

If you decide a class is waste of your time, see if you can drop it. Bad classes and boring professors are a waste of money. You can usually get into another class in the first few weeks without being too far behind. Take charge of your education the way you take charge of the things that matter. If you need the class to graduate, see if you can switch to a different class.

Take classes outside your major - they are going to give you much-needed perspective.
If it's hard to get classes outside your major, audit them. Or better yet, write the professor an essay on why you'd like to take the class. You might not get in, but it's good practice to write papers to get things you want. You'll have to do it for funding someday. Practice now.

You will never again have such a concentrated environment of ideas and expertise in one place.
Unless you go to grad school.


Get enough sleep. So you can wake up for, and pay attention in CLASS (above).
Eat vegetables.
Drink water.
People can not live on ramen alone.
If you feel sick, go see the nurse. Don't try to drink your way through it.


Make friends. Go out. Blow off studying sometimes. (Studying, not class.)
Do stuff other than partying.


In my opinion and experience, rushing a fraternity is a mistake as a freshman.
It's a huge distraction from your education. You are just starting to exercise your ability to make your own decisions. Abdicating those decision-making skills is counter-productive.
Pledging is relentless and while it may "build character", it may also get you sick, arrested or killed. I can point to several examples of each.

If you do choose to give Greek life a shot, choose your fraternity wisely. Do some research. Reflect on the character of the men you're going to pay to call your friends for four years.
If you get a bid, and then find out you hate it, quit. Plenty of people quit. No shame there.
I made some good friends pledging a fraternity, but I also made mistakes that could have cost me everything. Tread carefully.

Drink beer in college if you want to. As far as I'm concerned, you can start drinking the day you get there. I'm not a police officer or a lawyer but I'm pretty sure they don't care either, as long as it's within reason:

Don't drink beer for breakfast. Even on a Saturday. It's just a bad idea.
Don't drink beer instead of going to class. See classes.
Don't drink beer from a tube, upside down, on a railing. Don't do that.
Just because other people do it doesn't mean it's right.

Girls: don't drink anything you didn't pour yourself or watch somebody pour for you. And watch your friends' backs.

College is about figuring stuff out.
College is about changing your mind.
College is about building a rounded knowledge base that will help you be a more informed citizen, not just the world's leading Neurosurgeon.
Start picturing your long view so you can start making decisions about which things will get you there and which ones are distracting you from getting there.

Good luck. Be safe out there.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Heads up

I just spent a very intense six days presenting to clients and soaking up the magic of the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival and I've come away with a single takeaway: Please stop looking at your phone.

Of course I'm an app developer, a UX enthusiast, an advocate of the mobile lifestyle. But Jesus. You are MISSING EVERYTHING with your head in your phone.

I made a conscious decision this year to use my phone as infrequently as possible while walking around the convention center, the other venues, the streets in between. I looked for faces. I saw people I knew, people I'd heard speak, people I worked with, people I worked for. That place was packed, but I found the faces of no less than 25 people who matter to me, just by keeping my eyes on the crowd.

I also saw a ridiculous number of people crouched over their phones: walking, not walking, tethered to wall outlets (no doubt because they'd been staring at their screen all morning), stopped dangerously in the middle of intersections, their necks craned over a schedule or a map or a text message. Missing all the people around them. I saw people at networking events furiously scrolling their LinkedIn profiles as the owners of some of the brightest, most impressive resumes they've never met sat across from them -- answering their own email.

As app developers, we may very well be failing humans. If you find your smart phone more interesting than the crazy ass shit you can find on any street corner at any time of day in Austin, you are doing it wrong. Blatantly, unequivocally, sadly, dangerously, completely wrong.

At best, you'll miss seeing Seth Rogan or Oliver Platt strolling the streets. At worst you'll walk into the path of a speeding Game of Thrones pedicab. This is not about safe texting. This is about joining the human race. A race of art and ideas and beautiful, interesting people who are also unfortunately scrolling their latest Tumblr post for virtual validation. Stop. It.

I reconnected with old clients. I cheerfully shared stories about Bottle Rocket. I stepped up to Jeff Goodby and Sally Kohn and Jehmu Greene and introduced myself. None of them were on their phones. I had my eyes up and my heart open and I found all kinds of people to talk to. A creative director from Target. A Worldwide Partner from Y&R. I was invited to interview, to sample, to play. I wouldn't have seen/met any of these people if I was walking around studying how many people liked my Instagram posts.

As experience designers and shapers we need to empower users to quickly use their devices to get their heads back into life. Whether we're at the supermarket, the movies, across the dinner table from our spouse and kids, or walking around the biggest circus of innovation you can find on the third coast. Immersive mobile experiences are robbing us of our time to be human. I need to say it out loud because I bear some responsibility here. But you guys need to help me out.

You're missing your chance to share an idea in person. Make a friend. Smile. Flirt. Recognize someone you know or wish you knew. You're missing all of it.

Look up and smile.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Congratulations, you failed

Ah, school. Welcome back to school, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, super-seniors, you six-year-plus types. It is an amazing time to get something wrong.


The path to graduate school may be paved with 4.0s but the path to originality is paved with pot holes and the occasional pile of dogshit. The bigger, the smellier, the more treacherous the better. And I beg you all to start stepping in it. The sooner, the better.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you fail by sleeping through all your classes, melting your brain with bong hits or failing to turn in your assignments. Rest assured, if you set out to fail, that is one way to do it. I'm talking about sticking your neck out by asking crazy questions, putting forward risky ideas and above all, looking for strategic ways to turn convention on its head. I'm talking about removing the fear to fail -- I'm not advocating failing outright.

I had a creative director, the much-quoted Pete Wood, who preached -- (yes, preached; his path to creative director started after failing out of seminary): "Think dangerously, act safely." Pete failed seminary because he couldn't reconcile the role of women in the Catholic church with his own ideas. His ideas got him in trouble. How awesome is that? What was the last idea YOU had that got you in trouble? Remember how much fun it was? Did you learn anything? Of course you did.

The downside of thinking dangerously is you'll probably do twice, 3 times, 4 times as much work. But that's what it takes to be great: work. And being wrong a lot. In fact - if you get it right the first time, you would be very brave to throw it away and try to fail once, just to see what it feels like. And get used to the feeling of getting it wrong. Getting it wrong can be a sickening, humiliating experience. And it can also be an incredible motivator. SO CLOSE! Let's do it again! I guarantee nothing feels better than succeeding AFTER you fail a couple times.

As for acting safely? Cover your bases if you need to. Complete the assignment. Then I challenge you to try it a crazy, different way, just to show you're thinking about it. Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- but think about flinging one of those baskets at the stars.

You're in school. A certain amount of failure is expected of you. While good grades will get you into grad school, great ideas and a knowledge of what it feels like to blow it will give you the confidence to follow your own path instead of someone else's. That confidence will get you into grad school. Or better -- it'll help you decide whether you really have to spend that money. Trust me when I say your failure stories will be far more interesting than the stories about the times you did the safe thing and lucked into a B. They'll make you a more interesting person. Employers appreciate an employee who has learned to take a calculated risk by crashing and burning a few times.

You watch Project Runway? Of course you do. You know who the big losers are on that show? The safe ones. They hug each other and nod reassuringly, "Well, we're still here!" But inside they're thinking "SHIT! I didn't take a big enough risk! I'm in the middle." Because the middle is death. The middle is unmemorable. The middle is Jan Brady. Forgotten. When you really want to prove yourself, you have to put yourself out there -- and out there is where spectacular failure happens. And amazing greatness. Whichever.

So consider this a call to arms, you students, you brave scholars. Don't take "good enough" for an answer. Get out there and make some mistakes and actually learn something from them. In the words of Ken Robinson, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." If you don't know who Ken Robinson is, watch his TED talk.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Ode to Idiots

Screw you, dude who nearly drove me off the road tonight, holding your iPhone inches from your face as we drove, side-by-side through a school zone. Screw you, lady who -- despite my fluorescent yellow shirt, flashing tail light and broad-daylight-timed ride -- swerved out of my lane approximately ten feet behind the rear wheel of my bike only as I swung my head back at her in disbelief. A lone, long upright finger to you, jerk who turned that huge parking garage into valet-only. Another to the guy who emptied the coffee pot and didn't make another pot. And to that bitch on my flight who smashed her seat back into my lap. Oh wait. I've been those people. Apologies, friends. Strangers. Fellow idiots. My bad.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Congratulations, Now what?

I just graduated a class of ad students from UNT and have reviewed more than a couple portfolios over the past few weeks. As advertising students collect their diplomas and start shopping their books for -- not internships now -- but JOBS, here are a few things for all advertising youth to keep in mind:

Your student book contains mere glimmers of what will make you a valuable employee for some lucky (?) ad agency. Keep adding to it. Stop massaging the ideas you created in school. Immediately start prioritizing the campaigns in your book so you know what to replace first, next, etc. Then start coming up with ideas to replace them. One of your first goals as a junior is to replace your student book with actual work (as long as it's better than your student work in idea, strategic relevance, integrated thinking and craft.)

All the things that make for great advertising? Those are the things you should use to sell your talent. Have a brief. Position yourself. Know your target. Create an integrated campaign for your brand and keep it fresh and relevant. You are the most important product you'll ever market. Be honest. Be human. Have standards. And ethics. And be very clear about your standards and ethics.

Have a plan. Know -- and say -- more than "I just want a job". Or more than likely that's what you'll get: just a job. Visualize the work you want to do, and the creative director you want to work with. Then be candid with your recruiters. Be picky. If you feel like you can't be picky, improve your portfolio or go do something else. Life is too short to take a shitty job in advertising. Or "work your way up from the mailroom" in advertising. If you don't have what it takes to be really good -- be honest with yourself and go be productive somewhere else. It isn't for everyone. Not trying to be discouraging, just trying to save some of you from 10 miserable years of creating advertising that I will ignore on bathroom walls, on the windows of fast-food restaurants, and in my mailbox.

Eat your own dogfood. If you are working on Miller Lite -- drink Miller Lite. Even if you're a beer snob. Not out of a sense of loyalty (although they are LITERALLY paying your salary), but because in order to sell your product, you need to know your product. Fall in love with your products. If you love it, tell everyone you meet. If you literally can not love the products you're selling: you should quit. Seriously.

Every new project is a chance to use a new typeface, a new illustration technique, a new layout grid, a new color palette. If you're asked for several concepts -- use each as a chance to push your design ideas in a drastically different direction. Don't develop a style. Develop an approach. And make that approach eclectic. Your book should feel like the discography of the Beatles, not the Spin Doctors (if you don't know who the Spin Doctors are -- right.)

Ever. Whether it's in your mom's basement, your graduate school dorm or golden-handcuffed to a well-paying first job with an espresso machine in the kitchen. Your work is your future. If your book isn't improving, move. Either across town or across the country. On the other hand, if you are continually challenged to do great work, are trusted some responsibility -- and not being taken advantage of like a lowly pack-mule -- stay as long as it pays you back.

Be nice to people. Be considerate. Go to lunch with people from other departments. Remember names and send thank you notes and go to happy hours. Expand your circle of influence and goddammit, be a little political. Kiss some babies. This is a business driven by your ability to persuade people. Be awesome to EVERYONE you work with (don't be a pushover). Everyone remembers the happy ones. The loud ones. The ones that volunteer and are never too busy and offer to carry a box down the hall. You never know where your next job will take you. And who will be there from your last job. Keep up your book. You never know when the wind might change. You will most likely be fired/laid off at some point. It's the business. And its incumbent upon you to be ready.

Advertising is a stressful, unhealthy business. Make time to swim, bike, go to the gym, run. Join a sports team and go to the games. This shit is important. Advertising will sneak up on you and turn you into a fat, lazy, grumpy bitch/bastard if you let it. Look at all the CDs you interview -- you can tell which ones follow this advice. They are healthy looking, happier, and generally lead more balanced lives. They have more energy and a sunnier outlook. You can tell which ones lost the battle between a life and a life in advertising.

If all you think about and do is make advertising, you're going to end up a boring ad-douche. Don't do that. Travel, paint, write, sing, make friends, become an expert in food or whiskey or home repair or motorcycle construction. The creatives and developers I work with are all makers and doers. They make amazing stuff here and they go home and do other amazing things. Learn new stuff all the time that has nothing to do with making ads. It'll make you better at making ads. And friends. And give you a jump on something else down the road.

Share what you learn. This applies hours and days after you start your first job. Take an interest in the juniors that get hired behind you. A huge part of the path from junior art director to creative director is your ability to balance your people skills with your job description. Be patient. And persistent. Be firm. Set reasonable expectations and hold your juniors accountable. Fight for them. Remove obstacles. When you fight for them, most juniors will reward you with their loyalty and their best effort. In short: lead.

Take a vacation. Two weeks. Less than two weeks is not enough. Go lie on a beach. Or get lost in a foreign country. Or learn a skill. Do something other than advertising and lose your fucking cell phone for a few days. Trust me -- this is how vacations work. Three hours on Friday afternoon may be enough to grab a few beers, but vacations are about renewing your spirit. Ignore this one at your own peril. Plus, no good boss can resist the "I planned a trip to Australia in 6 months." story. Note: A little forewarning goes a long way.

You'll need it. Don't discount it. If you have it, appreciate it. If you don't have it yet, start making your own. Go.