Marty Neumeier is a designer, writer, and business adviser whose mission is to bring the principles and processes of creativity to industry. His latest book, Metaskills, explores the five essential talents that will drive innovation in the 21st century. His previous series of “whiteboard” books includes The Designful Company, about the role of design in corporate innovation; Zag, named one of the “top hundred business books of all time” for its insights into radical differentiation; and The Brand Gap, considered by many the foundational text for modern brand-building. He has worked closely with innovators at Apple, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, HP, Adobe, Google, and Microsoft to advance their brands and cultures. Today he serves as Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency, and travels extensively as a workshop leader and speaker on the topics of innovation, brand, and design. Between trips, he and his wife spend their time in California and southwest France.
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Morris: Before discussing your latest book, Metaskills (in Part 2), a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Neumeier: My mother and my wife have been hugely influential. They convinced me I could do anything.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Neumeier: I have to credit Dr. Seuss. In the 1950s, he was about the most creative person a six-year-old was likely to encounter. His drawings, rhymes, wordplay, and storytelling were so good they were nearly edible—like stuffing your head with candy. Later on, subversive fare such as comic books and Mad magazine held my attention, and eventually these were replaced by “grownup” stories like those by O. Henry and Ray Bradbury. But Dr. Seuss set the bar for creativity.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Neumeier: Yes, and it came as a surprise. By the time I was seven, I’d already decided to become a “commercial artist.” This may seem unusual at an age when other kids were setting their sights on the fire department, but my mother was trained as a designer, so I knew a little about it. I never strayed from that ambition until I was 55. It was then that I realized that design, in some ways, was too important to be left to designers. In 2003 I started to address a wider audience, writing books, speaking, and leading workshops on brand strategy, design, and innovation
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Neumeier: I had a great Catholic education in English, although other forms of creativity—art, music, theatre—had already been stripped from the curriculum by the 1950s. History, geography, math, and science I found mildly interesting, but they didn’t stick. My teachers considered me an underperforming B student until I got to design school. There I was a wildly inconsistent A-C-F-A-D-A sort of student. I had made the decision to focus on learning instead of grades, even if it meant failure. Which it often did.
Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Neumeier: That you have to bring your best self to the job. Any job, even one that isn’t your dream job, has something to teach you about collaboration, perseverance, time management, problem solving, or something else.
That’s the first thing. The second thing is that business doesn’t have to be boring. I had the false impression that business skills were set pieces, carved in ivory by previous generations, which had to be copied and used the same way they’d been used forever. Now I know that business skills can be reimagined and personalized, which makes the whole endeavor much more exciting and alive.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Neumeier: I could say The Godfather, but that’s really about old-school business. I learned more from Local Hero, the tale of an unfulfilled CEO discovering the magical possibilities in business. He’s a second-generation oil exec who sends his jaded M&A man to a seaside village in the north of Scotland. His task is to buy the whole community so it can be turned into the “petrochemical capital of the free world.” First, his M&A man is transformed the village, then the CEO is transformed. What the movie underscores for me is that business, at bottom, is a human endeavor, not a balance sheet.
Morris: From which “non-business” book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.
Neumeier: Probably the Sherlock Holmes series, which showed me that specialized mastery could create a huge competitive advantage. He made Scotland Yard look like a herd of clueless zombies. No offense, Inspector Lestrade.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Neumeier: That’s good. It’s about the power of leading though collaboration. Lao-Tzu was no slouch.
Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.” And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Neumeier: The first is about the danger of getting stuck in mental models. Seekers are always in a state of grace, while finders are subject to temptation. For example, there’s some truth to the notion that markets are self-correcting. But it’s a dangerous notion because it absolves us of responsibility. A greedy leader can leverage a half-truth into a mental model that does a great deal of harm. It pays to question leaders and the models they use.
The second quote, which I use all the time in brand workshops, is about the power of having a differentiated mission. We all learn by imitation, but we need to grow beyond the example of others and become more of who we really are. The path to personal success is a journey to yourself. The path to business success is a voyage out into the uncharted waters of the marketplace. In both cases, you can’t be a leader by following a leader.
Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Neumeier: This comes close to being a tautology, since a process that created a problem can hardly be the solution to the problem. We have to start at a different point with a different idea, then work from there.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Neumeier: It’s worse than useless. It’s a waste of energy and resources. Just walk up and down the aisles of a supermarket and look at all the unhealthy, over-packaged, shrill, me-too products on the shelves. Most of these are creating jobs and modest shareholder returns, but not much social value.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Neumeier: I’m a great believer in the organizational knowledge that comes from clarity of purpose. When a company has a clear purpose, mission, and vision, employees can make decisions with more confidence and autonomy. You end up with a culture of innovation in which employees can act with reasonable assurance that their efforts will be appreciated and rewarded.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not, ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather, ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?” Your response?
Neumeier: Mistakes are the rungs of invention. Every mistake is a learning experience, so the goal is to make educational mistakes instead of repetitive mistakes. We need to “fail forward.” One of the cul-de-sacs organizations find themselves in is “infectious repetitis,” a downward spiral in which people say “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.” The question CEOs should ask about failure isn’t “What went wrong?,” but “What did we learn that we didn’t expect to learn?”
Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?
Neumeier: Two reasons, I think. First, leaders are accomplished individuals who find it easier to dictate or micromanage than to suffer failure. Second, they forget that failure is necessary to learning. The problem with micromanaging is that it robs the company of experience, so it creates the need for further micromanaging. Leadership is stronger when it provides direction and support instead of answers.
Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?
Neumeier: A business—or even a country—is a kind of story, with an arc that describes its progress. Every employee or citizen wants to know what’s next, what are we headed, what’s my role? How a leader presents that narrative makes a huge difference. In the post-industrial age, employees are volunteers, not draftees. Each one is looking for fulfillment more than a paycheck.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Neumeier: Change is painful. It’s full of doubt and uncertainty. It means extra work for everybody. We all love change until it happens to us, at which point we start to review our commitment to the company. So what leaders need to do is this: Paint an honest picture of what will happen if the company doesn’t change, then paint a glorious picture of what the future will look like after the change.
When Lou Gerstner transformed IBM in the 1990s, he stood up and told a story. He said the world of “big iron” is dying, but over there, out on the horizon—see that?— there’s a brilliant future in the world of systems consulting. He then he used a well-designed internal campaign to paint a vivid scene of life after mainframes. This is an example of a meta-story, a story about the story you want to create.
Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism, of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?
Neumeier: Recently, a friend told me he had just completed his MBA in economics. I said, “Wow, that’s fantastic! You must feel great.” His reply shocked me: “It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s a check box.” It seems that even as the price of a degree is rising, its value is going down. Our whole education is ripe for change. In the meantime, CEOs and hiring specialists should look beyond the certificate—which has become a kind of mask—to the actual abilities that lie beneath.
Morris: Casting ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?
Neumeier: The next challenge is talent. Attracting it, affording it, and training it. If innovation continues to spell the difference between winners and losers, then hiring creative thinkers and doers is paramount. You can’t innovate without a creative workforce and—let’s face it—most of us weren’t educated to be creative. We were taught to copy, memorize, obey, and keep score. The same skills we now expect from machines.
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Marty cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Metaskills book site: www.metaskillsbook.com
Strategic pyramid: www.liquidagency.com/blog/steal-this-idea/