This week I started watching Netflix’s new show Abstract. It’s a beautifully produced documentary that follows the achievements of world renowned designers across a wide range of design disciplines, from Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s head of design to the architectural boy wonder Bjarke Ingels. Many of the designer’s stories are inspiring and touching. These individual’s stories made me want to get up and design something bold and exciting.
And then it made me sad.
What disappointed me was that Abstract reinforces the stereotype of the individual genius. I’m sure it’s not the producer’s intention but that’s the delivery. “Step inside the minds of the most innovative designers in a variety of disciplines” announces the series. The producers and directors are certainly not maliciously undermining the genius of the larger design teams but they fall for the mythology of raising one individual’s contribution over the rest of group.
Although there are glimpses of the team contributions woven into the storyline it’s obvious that the series’ focus is on a singular person’s input. The explicit narrative is about how these individuals have achieved extraordinary success. The reality is that every one of these designers works as a member of a team. Nothing innovative gets done without a team. Nothing.
As entertaining as these narratives are I find them to be very dangerous to both aspiring and current product designers.
Designers, and creators of all types, no matter how good they are, don’t work in a vacuum. They work with others. The work for others. They collaborate with others. They learn from others. And sometimes they even achieve success because of others.
I’ve been in the product design space for decades and I’ve never seen a designer create anything of value without the help or support of others. Even the illustrator Christoph Niemann, who is featured in Abstract’s opening episode, and who admittedly does his work alone in his Berlin studio would not be able to achieve his greatness without help from others. What makes Niemann great is he has been receiving help from others for his entire life. His parents, teachers, professors, mentors, clients, and now his wife who shares the burden of raising his children while he draws in his studio for hours each day.
Niemann is amazing at his craft. Let’s not detract from that fact. But without clients and commissions from publications like The New Yorker to bring the work to the world’s attention he’s just another designer. Without an exchange of ideas, requests, feedback and remuneration from others Niemann would just be another lonely illustrator with no public product.
The Myth of the Lone Genius
Being innovative has long been sold as the product of a single genius slaving away in isolation. Solo genius is romantic. It makes for great storytelling. We’ve all heard and seen it. The lone savant that declares they’ve solved problems no one else can in Good Will Hunting. The struggling inventor suddenly produces an exceptional piece that rockets them to stardom in The Prestige. The tortured design genius who can apparently know what customers want even before they do in Jobs. These are either fiction or just a fraction of the whole story.
As entertaining as these narratives are I find them to be very dangerous to both aspiring and current product designers. This mythology molds people’s expectations for their own work. We’re led to believe that if we’re not child prodigies or aren’t having lightning bolt moments of inspiration then we aren’t worth holding the title of designer, or engineer, or creator. It’s about time we gave up this myth and told the truth. While individuals can contribute considerable amounts, they rarely complete a project or achieve success alone.
The real story of creating innovative or valuable things is complicated and often messy. It’s a hard story to tell. Innovative ideas are the product of several people’s input. Genius borrows from genuis. Greatness stands on the shoulders of giants.
Leadership > Individual Genius
Credit isn’t easy to assign to anyone in a creative team. In the world that I inhabit, digital product design, the team is made up of several ‘geniuses’ all working towards a common goal. While there is almost always a team leader, they are not the people doing all the creative work. Very often these leaders are not even doing the daily work but rather providing a focus for that work. The product leader’s job is not to constantly manage or direct, but to coach their team by clearly articulating the common goal. They should provide the context the team is working in, from the problems and frustrations the customers have, to the competitive environment the company operates within.
True product leadership isn’t an individual effort. True product leadership recognises that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Being dictatorial and enforcing your own product ideas is never going to be as productive or successful as bringing the whole team together. From design and engineering to sales and marketing, everyone is included in innovative product creation. The product leader’s job is to curate the right team, provide an environment for success, bring the user problems to them and then facilitate conversations and help connect the dots that allow the whole team to design the solutions together.
The Power of Diversity and Shared Ownership
When you consider the value of the diverse backgrounds and experience of each team member when designing solutions it would be foolish not to include everyone. Diversity overcomes biases in delightful ways. Diversity of ideas is by nature a more creative starting point. Diversity is also more likely to result in empathy for the customer.
Creativity isn’t the domain of the lone designer or product manager. Every job in an innovating company is an inherently creative role, whether it’s obvious (designers) or not (engineers). Some of the best product solutions we have worked on have come from traditionally non-creative team members who have a good understanding of the problem space and an inherent grasp of the opportunity afforded by the technology stack. To these people finding quick, elegant solutions to customer needs becomes second nature. That’s design.
Individual genius is not a myth worth perpetuating because it devalues all of our efforts and creativity.
The bottom line is that everyone in the organization owns the creative outcome. Its success or failure lies in the hands of each person who touches it. All these touches, small and large, have the potential to make the customer outcome a little better. Individual genius is not a myth worth perpetuating because it devalues all of our efforts and creativity.
Creative product leadership is necessary and in my opinion required. Teams do better with a focusing force. However, leadership, in any form, is not the genius. The genius is delivering value to the customer or audience. These are the people best served by a team and a servant leader. In the world of products and experiences, the product leader’s job is to bring together the best team possible, to lead them to tackle the product challenges, get the best out of everyone and provide a gentle hand to keep it heading in the right direction. Taking all the credit isn’t part of the job.
My dream is that Netflix will produce a second season of Abstract and this time focus on teams. Who are these quiet members pulling all-nighters solving problems for their organizations? What are they doing to make their team, their leader, and their customers look good? What is their story? This might not change our appetite for stories about creative individuals. But it might be a step towards undoing the solo genius mythology and shining the light on how leaders and teams can create beautiful outcomes together.
Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.