FIRE YOUR INNER ARTIST: A Case Against Perfection in a Creative Company

“You don’t have a quality problem. You have an output problem. Get it done.”

I’ve said this to many creative companies in different ways. Specifically, it’s something I’ve said at a particular time in a company’s lifetime - late adolescence going into early adulthood - when companies need to grow the most and the fastest. This is the time to set aside perfection and concentrate on gaining speed. That first big growth in sales, clients, audience or growing into new regions means the scale of production must grow very quickly. If a company doesn’t ride this wave correctly, they will stunt themselves. If a company relies on its first big moment in the sun to gain an accompanying big following, failing to ride that wave will stunt growth permanently.

This growth period is almost always an existential struggle for creative companies. The talented folks who design products don’t always have the acumen for scaling a company. Sometimes designers and artists assume that any increase in quantity must somehow come with decrease in quality or a decrease in customer satisfaction. This an understandable perspective for creative people; they struggle to see that their product can be mass-produced without some kind of quality loss. As a result, the growth can be choked so they can comb over the product relentlessly.

Many artists and designers are so closely attached to their concepts that mass production and distribution feel like a troll under the bridge, threatening to end the creative process before they can reach the goal of a sustainable business. But production and distribution are the bridge toward a sustainable business - the real troll is the relentless pursuit of perfection. The creative process doesn’t end at mass production and many beautiful artisan made products may actually improve with scale. Here’s the case against perfection.

Quality Gets Better with Scale

In his book Outliers, psychologist Malcolm Gladwell said that a skill takes 10,000 hours to perfect. Quality control is one of those skills. By scaling production, the quality control process logs more hours. As logged quality control hours lifts towards 10,000 there will be minor improvements made all over the place. Think about it: if you could have a team look at your product or service 10,000 times, wouldn’t they begin to notice things to be upgraded? Most importantly, any true quality control system loops quality issues back to design so the changes are made before the next production run.

Quality control is not perfectionism. Quality control is a concept used for production that involves many hands, it requires the designer to relinquish control but the result can be improved quality.

Blankets awaiting inspection at the Pendleton Woolen Mill.

Feedback Always Comes Before the Final Form

Another tool is the “beta strategy”, where companies open up their beta to a test group before their official launch. When you think about it, how is it even possible to design a great product without getting feedback from the user? An honest review always comes before the final form. Recall when Steve Jobs sent back the iPhone because keys could scratch the screen? Putting a beta version into the hands of the customer is akin to the refiner’s fire. After all, it’s not going to be the designer’s product, it’s going to be the customer’s product. So if your designer is resisting customer feedback, your product is resisting quality.

Somebody is Going to Buy Something

If you never put your product on the shelf, you’ll never know how successful it is. If your company is using disruptive technology, new processes or platforms, your entire business can be beaten out by a faster competitor.

When someone goes into the grocery store and doesn’t find the brand they want, do you leave or make a compromise? The customer will likely compromise because they have an approximate need and most brands will do. Pre-sales, betas and test groups are helpful in determining how ready your company’s product is. But until it’s on the shelf, you’re just a laboratory and not yet a company. So when the customer walks into the store and doesn’t see your product - they won’t walk out empty handed - they’ll make a compromise and buy the next best thing. So now your competitor’s ugly, inferior, overpriced yet highly available product is rung up by the clerk and you’re still in the lab.

Silkscreened wallpaper from the Timorous Beasties.

Production Needs Creative Problem Solving Too

Labs and studios are a place for considering lofty problems and translating them into real solutions. It can be helpful to bring that attitude to the production floor too. Scaling your production is not as simple as turning up a dial or throwing another switch, especially if you’re working with high design products. Consider scalability as another design challenge. Sit your creative team down to consider how a product be made at large scale with limited scrap, less variance, less electricity, less labor, et al.

There is a Morality to Mass Production

Making one beautiful product will consume more resources per product than making two. There is a morality here, not just a matter of cost savings. Some design principles - like elegance and rhythm - transcend aesthetics and should be applied to the production phase of your product.

And if it consumes more time to do custom work or new products, how much of your time do you want to dedicate to the oversight? Although some custom work can be inspiring, finding creative ways to speed up the process can be inspiring too. In a world where time is becoming the scarcest resource, there is a certain morality to time-savings.

Now You (and the Customer) Can Afford Quality

Bigger production numbers mean bigger budgets. Bigger budgets mean better equipment, finer materials and more talented staff. The quest for quality requires some things that only economies of scale can justify. The transition from a small studio that produces small orders in-house to a medium sized studio that contracts out its orders in bulk is one of the hardest transitions. It requires a great deal of investment and faith. Knowing that greater scale can help achieve superior quality is a good motivator to overcome this test of faith.

PechaKucha on Cultural Mashups

I recently gave a Pecha Kucha on "cultural mash-ups" in Ellensburg WA.  A little bit of humor and absurdity help explain the impact!

From the Pecha Kucha website:

Lucas Spivey says, your culture and other cultures are going to keep coming together. It's going to explode into products that have a market - like Cool Runnings - or things that are outlandish - like Jello wrestling - or sometimes things that are just forgettable - like McHuevos Rancheros. Like it or not, it’s a pretty interesting time to be alive.


Culture: the god particle of markets

The next Nobel Prize in Economics will be in the realization that all trade from all time was cultural. That the direct or indirect exchanges of all goods and services was to reaffirm cultural desires. It was never about money - money was just a measured reflection of what successful merchants considered culture moving backward from this date. From this realization onwards, the only purpose of economics was acknowledged as but one measurement of culture: the god particle of markets. That GDP existed alone to measure culture. That the pulse and conditions of culture would dictate the market for all trade.

That to understand the culture market was now a faster route than the money market.

Was to understand the additive effects of clashing cultures and was akin to financial forecasting.

Was to find the value created in the environments where cultures collided was manifest.

Edge effects occur in the intersection of two cultures. Its sequitur is that this intersection will contain the most diversity, more so than either culture. In ecology, these exist as valleys, fjords, islands, areas with a mixing of ocean currents or air currents, migration paths for animals. In culture, edge effects occur as major trade routes, ports and cities, emigration and exploration vectors. As people encounter each other in these edge areas they discover new methods and mindsets for what are universal activities. They trade cultures, they exchange their portfolio, they diversify a phenotype.

Understanding this exchange, culture can be seen as the impetus of all interaction. 


On passing the center

It’s why we attract our opposite culture to anchor our identity. It’s the slow path towards stabilization of all we know. We are bound by inertia, the maintenance of the way things are right now. And as we pass the center and approach an unknown culture we feel a hand on our collar again.

We will slowly unite in cultures. It's inevitable. It will be slow and violent. It will feel fast and controllable. 

Even the most pleasurable introductions will be a tumult. Learning a word in another language will feel substantial; it will be immeasurably small, less than a Higg's boson inside an hourglass. Our discomfort outside our known culture will continue to be achingly dissonant to our strongest beliefs. Yet it will contribute to an undetectable reconciling.

It’s because life grows on Earth where the temperature varies from 30 below zero to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. On Mercury it's over 800 degrees during the day and below 300 degrees at night. Mercury is described as uninhabitable by those who can't inhabit such states, as if an unstable exosphere is not alive. One day we could incorporate a flux of elements into our paradigm of life, or not.

How can we understand something so different?

The furthest cultures are unable to be comprehended. It would be like Trump vs Sanders in 2016. They label them as outsiders. This is not a reactionary label, it’s the correct one. Outliers are at the extent of standard deviation - the farthest stretch of comprehension to the "other" - until they within our new frame of deviation.

It’s why we called it a “miracle” when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New York Giants when they were down by 21 points with 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. It’s improbable, it’s outside the standard deviation, it doesn't exist comfortably in our concept of the game as we understand it.

The miraculous is often called the mysterious. We are attracted to the different cultures, we are scared or intrigued by their mystery. Biologically, we are prone to notice contrasting noises, colors, sensations; it makes environmental sense to register what is different. And so we are drawn to contrast by instinct. We then respond with mixes of fear and curiosity. So why then do we resist change as we pass center?

It’s the way electrons are charged across the membrane. There is simultaneous attraction and resistance. Will the pull defeat the push? As soon as it does, the task begins in reverse. Again and again, we are attracted by the other culture until repulsed with our traditions. And that’s what every arena was built to discover. We are a wavelength slowly meting out to a straight line.


Time for pleasure

Fireworks over the Puget Sound in 2009.
It was a rather pure way of trading my time for pleasure.


Quality ≥ Speed > Cost A Formula for Creative Projects

Colin Harman

The holy trinity of project management is scope, schedule and budget (or quality/speed/cost depending). This is what the Project Management Institute calls the “triple constraint”. Companies can’t escape these constraints, but they can adjust the mixture to achieve their projects. Creative projects are constrained differently than other projects like technology or construction and so their priorities are a different balance.

For creative companies I propose the following priorities:
Scope ≥ Schedule > Budget

Why the “greater than or equal to” sign between scope and schedule? Because in the creative sector, quality always equals or is more important than speed for two reasons. First, quality is the reason the company started; and second it's also what drives every project. Clients are looking to the creative company to solve a quality problem. Unreasonable attempts to save costs by reducing quality is not a good brand for creative companies. Quality is the brand for creative companies, and therefore the most critical aspect of what they do. To unreasonably sacrifice quality for speed or cost risks the entire value proposition.

Quality is also why creative projects are started in the first place. Every creative project is likely a quest for quality. Projects such as prototyping, new product roll-out, a company rebrand, or an ad campaign are all defined by a new level of quality. The best creative companies can promise speed along with quality, but for fledgeling enterprises “design within reach” can shift into “fast but okay”.

Regarding cost, creative companies rarely base their appeal on price. Price wars rarely work for commodities but it never works in the creative sector, where the audience is shopping for a particular or unique experience. Forget cost as the prime directive but remember that each project is a three legged stool. If you shave off too much quality, speed or budget, there is an adjustment to be made. Here are some scenarios to consider for creative projects.

The “Send It Back to the Kitchen” Scenario

In this scenario, the client isn’t satisfied and sends it back to your team for better quality, now what? Under few circumstances should a creative project be pushed back in schedule. This seduction of more time will hurt the relationship with other clients - as well as your current dissatisfied client - when you can’t deliver on the original deadline. It will conflict with your other projects in numerous ways, it will fluster vendors, jostle PR deadlines, confuse management and support staff and set a precedent of pushing things back when quality is poor. In short, the company looks amateur and it’s other projects suffer.

It’s far better to negotiate how much it will cost to deliver the better quality on the same timetable. Either invoice the improvement in quality, absorb the cost (gulp!) or strike a compromise. The client will respect a creative firm that insists on staying on schedule.

The “I Need It Yesterday” Scenario

In this scenario, the client wants you to give them the same quality but faster, For example, a firm just got word that their designs need to go to production this spring instead of summer. In this example, reducing the design quality is very tempting. But remember that your company’s identity is based on quality. Creative companies sometimes need to be fast or affordable, but they can never be shoddy. Consider hiring on additional staff or consultants to meet the deadline and explain that cost to your client. They may be insistent on reducing quality instead of paying more. Again, remember that a creative company’s identity is not based on its price point but on quality. Explain that what they are really asking for is “brilliance in a crunch” and that is very expensive service to provide.

The “I’ve Never Done That Before” Scenario

In this scenario, the company has a project they’ve never attempted before. Be aware that new endeavors are going to need more time to get the untested form up to the quality of your tested forms. This absolutely costs the company more and takes more time. A company can’t enter a new form of project and be rookie of the year - unless additional resources can be pledged or you hire some veterans. The company should pair outside veterans with current staff to research the best, base and worst case scenarios. Then the company can generate a quote for a project, and even give a contract with performance based compensation so that the speed and cost can be flexible. With performance based compensation, the company can afford the costs of speeding up the project.


Connect through ideas, abut with nature.

For a long time I've trying to find a way to say (and show) how I feel. 
Thank you Cowiche Canyon for the inspiration!



Would you work in a non profit?

Many people can tell you what their job is, the job title, the industry they work in, etc. But if you ask them what sector of ownership they are in, not everyone knows how to answer that. If you're like me, you've had a lot of different jobs over the course of your life. I focused a lot on what industry I wanted to be in (art, culture, higher ed, etc.) but I didn’t realize that my industry would dictate the sector of ownership would be in - almost every company I worked for was non profit. The working world is very much divided between three primary sectors of ownership: for profit, public and non profit.

But the distinctions between sectors is not always so clear cut. Sure a non profit with 501c3 status is undeniably a non profit, but it may in fact generate a profit at the end of the year. Meanwhile, there's no guarantee that a for profit business will profit at all - it could turn a loss for several years in a row. A publicly owned organization like city hall is thought of as bullet proof but even city governments like Detroit have filed for bankruptcy. All of this uncertainty has an effect on the employees working for the entity in question.

Weighing the long-term advantages for each sector, let’s consider how a career can be profoundly affected over a lifetime depending on which sector you're employed in (or contracting with). What sector can offer you the most job security and advancement opportunities, the most pay and benefits, the best culture? Here's an overly generalized table to start the conversation.

Companies offer competitive salaries for mid to high level positions.
Employees can expect baseline wages mandated by law. Some positions are unionized.
Many volunteers or interns in the sector can drive down wages. Lots of internal equity of wages can freeze raises.
Small companies can offer faster advancement but most careers develop over a lifetime.
Many unions mandate internal candidates are considered first, or there are clear requirements for advancement.
Typically smaller orgs that allow faster advancement. Barriers to positions are lower than for profit equivalents.
Job Security
Some unionizations. Most job security depends on market factors and competitive advantage.
Municipal, state and federal funding can fluctuate but most government services and programs are essential.
Some grant funded orgs or positions are expendable. Other orgs are secured through foundations or endowments.
Some companies offer stock options. Most positions come with competitive benefits, some entry level or part time do not.
Most jobs mandate benefits, vacation/sick/personal, pension, etc.
Small size of orgs limits the feasibility or group rate insurance. Shoe-string orgs cannot offer much benefits.
Drive to increase shareholder wealth can be dissatisfying. Some financial incentives to increase productivity.
Culture is not driven by profit or by mission, but by government established criteria.
Mission driven orgs are less influenced by market pressure or profitability. More emphasis on impact within mission.
A overly generalized chart of advantages, warnings and disadvantages for each sector.

What is the difference between these types of ownership that drive such trade offs? Simply put, ownership should create the correct market incentives. For profit firms are driven to increase shareholder wealth (they are FOR profit) and they follow the market's need for various products and services. However, there are certain industries that do not follow the market so well and lend themselves to public ownership, such as transportation, utility provision, national security, et al. In the US, most industries are privatized but there are many Americans (soldiers, teachers, public works) who get their paycheck from federal, state, county or municipal governments.

Besides for profits and public orgs, there may still be areas of service that are not being addressed by the market or by public mandate and this is where nonprofits come into play. Services like assistance for the mentally challenged, arts and cultural projects or health care and job education below the poverty line will never be cost effective enough for profit or high enough on the ballot box for public agencies to be sufficiently mandated. Because of the difficulties of working outside the market or public mandate, many nonprofits are funded by grants, endowments, foundations, trusts or other indirect sources.


Non profits are widely known to not offer competitive pay compared to positions in the for profit sector (see Dan Palotta’s excellent TED talk). Studies indicate that the discrepancy is typically 25% for positions of the same title. Additionally, the average smaller size of a non profit may mean more managerial oversight responsibility along with less pay. There are disagreements on what metrics to use since the titles between the two sectors may not be appropriate to compare, for example President can mean one of the highest salaries in a Fortune 500 company versus a volunteer position (with an expected donation) in a small non profit.

In “Compensation in the Nonprofit Sector”, Ruhm and Borkoski argued that the difference in wages between for profit and nonprofit employees is not statistically significant. They attribute this difference in compensation was due to shorter working hours and location of nonprofit jobs in low-paying industries. Further, this is partly due to the two sectors being divided by industries that are profitable (consumer electronics versus foodbanks for instance) and the more profitable industries can pay higher wages.

It’s also important to note that women represent up to 80 percent of workforce in nonprofits - possibly tied to the industries of human services and education which have predominantly female coworkers. This phenomenon could be highly linked to the average lower salary in a nonprofit as women notoriously receive less pay than men across the board.


When the term non cash compensation is thrown around, it means benefits and perks including deferred income plans, retirement contributions, paid or subsidized health, dental, life and other insurances, paid vacation, sick and personal time, stock options and many other add-on benefits to working for a particular employer. Free coffee machines, workout facilities or paid travel accounts are other forms of non cash compensation. Because of their lower cash compensation, nonprofits are looking to recruit and retain employees through company specific benefits and perks. However the small size of non profits (many are 2 - 5 people) means less economy of scale and group discounts to insurance and memberships are less feasible on this small scale.


Money isn't everything. Advancement within a company or within an industry is important to those who seek greater challenges or more ownership through time. Many individuals realize early on that they will need to rise through the ranks of a particular industry before reaching their desired role or salary. The different sectors each offer advancement but there are different pathways towards these terminal positions. There are also some particular struggles of recruitment and retention within nonprofits.

It is difficult to recruit from within a nonprofit for certain positions due to several factors. Development positions in particular can be a grueling and high pressure since many orgs consider it the primary or most dynamic source of revenue. IT, finance, operations and other occupations that are shared between for profit, public and non profit are difficult to recruit since non profit compensation is lower than the other sectors.

On the plus side for would be employees, entry level positions in small nonprofits typically have less qualifications and can be used to springboard into higher positions several years down the road. The 2013 Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey showed that entry-level vacancies “were most often filled by candidates from outside of the nonprofit sector. Mid-level vacancies were most often filled by staff promoted from within the organization.” This is a healthy life-cycle where non profits can recruit from outside their sector and promote from within.

However, in the same survey, the retention of leadership was also at issue since many nonprofit orgs lack a formal strategy for successioning an executive director or president. Experience with nonprofits is required for these senior level positions but more and more there is an expectation to have skills from the for profit sector. It may be equally important for senior positions to have perspectives on municipal, state or federal agencies that supply funding or assistance to the non profit. For this reason, senior and executive vacancies are commonly filled by senior managers and executives from other nonprofit organizations. Those of us in the nonprofit sector have seen the shuffling of E.D.s between orgs.

There is an expected increase in hiring in the Finance/Administration/Operations area for nonprofits - following 17% in 2013 up from 14% in 2012 . This could be a refreshing and healthier balance of staff since nonprofits often under-invest in infrastructure and long-term growth. This lack of financial foresight is often done to minimize overhead for programs, which is often seen as a measure of efficiently using grants or foundation money. Some nonprofits are disallowed to use funds for various expenses and some are also capped in what they can offer in executive pay as well.


"Job security" is also not about money as much as it is the lessening of the risk of unemployment, it's the measure to which an employee can expect to continue working at a given position or company. The ability to continue employment has a real value to an employee (and an employer!) and is a major factor to consider when pursuing a particular career or employer. In non profits there is a staggering amount of voluntary resignations due to “burn out”. This trend is brought about by the excessive workload per wage that are put upon non profit employees

I'm not making up this trend of burnout, when a non profit adds more programming, 48% of organizations intend to use current staff to support the new programs. This is the most popular strategy year after year which culminates in a voluntary termination. The effect is compounded in that 74% of nonprofit orgs expect to use current staff to take over duties for eliminated employees. This is a truly frightening combination for the poor staff that stay on board! In the following charts we can see the anticipated turnover that can result in this compounding of responsibilities.

Perhaps the most specific difficulty is a nonprofit’s oversight of profit in order to meet its passionate agenda. This predilection toward the passionate leads to hiring abnormalities based on relevance to the organization’s agenda rather than best candidate for long-term financial viability of the organization. We see the reverse issue in for profits where profitability is emphasized most often and can become the only agenda; a glaring oversight of how the employee feels about the product or service they intend to make, sell or perform.

In the for profit world there could be some opportunities for employees to redefine the mission only they rise through the ranks. Even more removed are public employees who are offered little room for this kind of redirection since agendas comes from elected officials who base their legislation and funding on public pressure. Human resource scholars Bezboruah and Oyum argue that non profit employees are more attached to this mission than employees in federal government and private sector employees, saying “the human resource challenge is the most significant because the [nonprofit] personnel are the architects and agents of the services.”


This difference in culture between the three sectors can be jarring for those who are considering a career shift. Nonprofits have begun recruiting executives (presidents, marketing directors, CFOs) from the for profit world in hopes they will make their organization more competitive, but the culture shock can be abrupt. It takes time for new employees to adjust to the different bottom line, people over profit. Of course for profits now use the phrase ‘multiple bottom lines’ to describe their social responsibilities; but the emphasis is clear enough in the very name of the sector “for profit”. Perhaps the culture of nonprofits may prove to be more advantageous in recruiting new generations since mission commitment has been found to work better for younger workers than for their older counterparts.

One of the peculiar challenges for nonprofits is that the people who pay for the service are not actually receiving the service. If you could see a spectrum of who pays for the services actually received, you'd notice that for-profit is mostly funded by direct sales to buyers, non profits mostly fund by indirect and then public organizations are somewhat in between. You may remember the national discussion on the Affordable Care Act whether it was a tax (merely government raising revenue) or a fee (recouping the cost of a benefit given to the beneficiary). And note that eligible gifts to a recognized charity by law cannot receive any benefit - this is the antithesis of a sale. All these differences reveal the differing cultures that will be in the workplace.


It's not always logical to draw comparisons between a for profit firm, public agency or a non profit org if they are rarely within the same industry, with different payroll sizes, different budgets, locations, etc. I’ve found that most industries are almost entirely within one sector, for example there are not many non profit or public companies in the consumer electronics industry. However there are certain industries that are split between sectors, such as the USPS alongside FedEx and UPS or the presence of non profit and for profit hospitals and schools. There are even some private companies that are knocking on the door of previously public endeavors, such as SpaceX’s foray into NASA’s territory of space travel. Only when such companies of different sectors are in the same industry, same size, budget, location, is there a meaningful comparison.

The percentage of US employment in nonprofits has grown from 5.6% in 1972 to current estimate of over 10%. Yet, nonprofits have consistently underperformed in market compensation and are not able to match many of the benefits offered in the public and for profit sectors. The lifecycle of nonprofit occupations is relatively healthy in that middle and upper level positions are filled from within the sector, although not necessarily within the org itself.

The growth of nonprofits must be evidence of some kind of perceived advantage for an organization. Could the advantage be the lower salaries than other sectors? Certainly the advantage is not in economies of scale since the bulk of nonprofits are so small, however the nimbleness of a small org is enviable to a large bureaucracy. And a further designation with 501c3 status allows tax deductible gifts as well. Perhaps the growth in non profits is due to the growing importance of socially responsible businesses with multiple bottom lines.

If nonprofit employees are more loyal to a mission than contributing to shareholder wealth, can this loyalty be used to drive better HR practices and improve retainment? Hopefully nonprofits can develop competitive career advancement opportunities for entry and mid level employees to keep their experience within the org and help them “bloom where they grow”. Burn-out will be a continued issue as long as nonprofits expect to place responsibilities for new programs and terminated positions on its current employees.