It can be tempting to push for consensus from a wide team in a creative project. Yet in design, consensus makes no one happy. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington shared this perspective:
“There’s a saying I love: “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” A variation is “a Volvo is a Porsche designed by committee.” When there are too many cooks in the kitchen all you get is a mess. And when too many people have product input, you’ve got lots of features but no soul.”
Democracies don’t work in product development. Neither do unhappy compromises or peace treaties. We need to be leaders that make unpopular calls to keep an idea focused. Otherwise, we end up with a lack of a vision, internal inconsistencies, feature creep, and uninspired products.
“Product should be a dictatorship. Not consensus driven. There are casualties. Hurt feelings. Angry users. But all of those things are necessary if you’re going to create something unique. The iPhone is clearly a vision of a single core team, or maybe even one man. It happened to be a good dream, and that device now dominates mobile culture. But it’s extremely unlikely Apple would have ever built it if they conducted lots of focus groups and customer outreach first. No keyboard? Please.”
In 2006, the Microsoft design team put together the following teaching aid for Microsoft marketers. The parody video, “If Microsoft Designed the iPod Packaging”, leaked, went viral, and became a cautionary tale for all marketers.
One size never fits all. One size fits none.
13 CommentsJoin the Discussion
Input from the team (or even the dreaded committee) should be encouraged & welcomed. Good ideas sometimes lurk in the most unlikely places. At the same time it must be clear that one person has the final say. A phrase we first heard in a highly participative & successful financial services company is that: “Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote.”
I agree that consensus can be killer, especially with tight deadlines (who hasn’t been there).
But, from an aesthetic marketer’s perspective, I like what the cartoon’s committee came up with. None of the ideas on the whiteboard are more compelling than the simplicity and beauty of an uncarved pumpkin. A committee deadlock can be good if it helps you remember that sometimes the best idea is the simplest one.
Francisco Camacho says
I fully agree with the message on “carve by committee”. Over the years I have seen many designs gone terribly bad by trying to please everyone. In fact, I have even consistently forbidden the use of Focus Groups to “test” packaging design. Trying to make everyone happy never works for business decisions but it is even worse when it relates to packaging design.
By asking for an insightful comment are you not committing the sin you highlight in your cartoon?
You will end up with a post full of useful comments in many different directions.
Great cartoon – I am working with 54 barristers all self-employed and all who have several opinions on every given subject. Trying to conduct a re-brand exercise for chambers is entertaining.
Jennifer Nelson says
The point of the article is still right on, but Michael Arrington and all others who use that saying about a camel are way off base and should not malign camels so! No committee would ever produce a mode of transportation that, despite unimagineable leaps of technology since its inception, would still have such a unique point of difference and high utility for a specialized situation (in the desert) and a core user base (desert dwellers and crossers) after thousands of years.
On a more “serious” note, I am tired of hearing people malign hearing the voice of customers — whether it be focus groups or any other method — as though such a pedestrian endeveour is only for the feabile minded. The “voice” of the consumer is extremely powerful and inspiring when used well. The problem comes in how we (and often the “committee” of a large organization) use it. For example, bad use #1 validate what you already believed to be the case before hand, or it’s cousin, #2, to use as a “political” battering ram, and #3 check the box “we’ve heard the customer.” I could right a book on all the variations of bad use #4, reporting on what people “liked.”
Next time, try listening to what consumers are really saying they wish for in terms of the experience and how it feels, and ignore the pat responses (e.g. “It’s the price” “if I got a coupon” etc), and most of all – hold yourself to standards above “people liked it.” If you have a prototype – Did it blow their minds? Did you have people begging to know when the real thing was coming to retail? Better yet, try methods that don’t ask them to express in words what they want or need, but observe what they are doing and let your innovation inspiration come from their real world toils.
Consumer research can be a source of inspiration at the fuzzy front end, and a fabulous tool to ensure your execution pays out the potential of your inspired vision. But bottom line, lame consumer research used lamely yields lame innovation. The question is, do you have the courage to really hear — and then act — upon it?
Great feedback already! Just a quick note to Crispin. I think that comments in every different direction is great, as is feedback in product development. The trick is what to act on. The impetus is on the leader to wade through all of the feedback and make a focused call that doesn’t try to make everyone happy…
I feel right at home reading this post. Seth Godin talks about “thrashing” at the start of product development. My organization thrashes at the end – missed deadlines and watered down offerings are our MO.
It’s the perfect time to internally market a better product development process. I’m quite sure we can do this better.
marketing is not grass root democracy.
Kevin McFarthing says
Good post, Tom, highlighting the issue of poor decision making. Consensus as a means of aligning organizations, whether on ideas, projects or other changes, is an illusion. My experience of such situations is that once a decision is made, those disagreeing with it don’t participate fully in the implementation – “well, I didn’t agree with it” and secretly hope for failure – “I told you so”.
Not only is it ineffective, it wastes enormous amounts of time. Give me decisive leadership any time.
The key is 60%+ consensus and 100% implementation. A previous (Italian) boss of mine made it very clear when a decision had been made – “Finito. Punto.” He expected commitment in implementation, and was quite rightly tough on any dragging heels.
… and this is why Steve Jobs was such a great Product Manager!
Anne C. Bech says
I agree with Jennifer Nelson listening to the voice of the customers makes sense, but we need to consider how in every project – kind of ‘management of the voice of the customer’. We need strategy to decide whether we want ‘a one size fit all’ solution or multiple different solutions for different target groups. All solutions must match consumers’ needs in an appropriate way. We listen to the customer or the consumers but we do not use all we hear only the most appropriate insights.
I love the cartoons, thank you Tom.
rich binell says
1. A Volvo is a Porsche designed by people who do not think dying in a car with your children is a good idea.
2. Every committee is at the mercy of its stupidest member. Which means you need to choose your committees very wisely if you care about outcomes.
3. Apple doesn’t do focus groups. They rely on good judgement, which is a rare thing in the world. Which means they have to choose their people very wisely.
Great perspective from everyone this week, many thanks!
What I learned most this week is the importance of separating group input from group decisions. I’m a believer in getting diverse perspective from everyone, but then having the courage to make a focused final call.
I love how Kevin distills this lesson into 60% consensus and 100% implementation. The heel-dragging that occurs when there is less than 100% implementation is really damaging. This week’s print goes to Kevin.
Mike encapsulates this wonderfully in the simple expression, “Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote.”
I agree with Jennifer’s perspective on the role of consumer research and the insight that “lame consumer research used lamely yields lame innovation”. That should be framed and mounted in every office.