Where the Magic Happens

This has been one of those weeks where a few seemingly unrelated ideas were brought to my attention, but they got me thinking about what connects them all.  The first thing I saw was an article about flourishing.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/science/17tierney.html).  Martin Seligman, whose biggest idea was arguably to stop thinking so much about mental illness and to begin concentrating on mental wellness, asserts that happiness isn’t necessarily the only thing that motivates us, as human beings.  In his analysis, we are motivated mostly by a need to flourish.  Unpacking that term a little more, he comes up with the acronym Perma, which stands for:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

His idea is that we all find the need to experience positive emotions, engagement (also known as immersion or flow), some connection with humanity, the sense that what we are doing has some wider value and substance to it and the need to feel like we have gotten some way forward in our goals.  Fear and greed are not good motivators at all.  In fact, the basis of all capitalism and free markets is built on insubstantial ground, when it comes to human motivation.  Very interesting idea, indeed.

The second idea came from somebody I respect a lot, as a software process thought leader and who I used to work with (and enjoyed working with immensely).  David Joyce posted a blog about the need for architects, when constructing software.  (http://leanandkanban.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/we-dont-need-no-frickin-architects/).  Although most agile software development processes are geared toward the construction of well-engineered components, on time, in the right order, to give the right quality for the right price and offering the most immediate business value, soonest, it is rather like a person that wants a house asking the builders to construct it room by room, starting with the kitchen first, but without any architectural design or structural engineering.  You wouldn’t do that with a house, but we do exactly that with agile software engineering.  Sometimes we begin constructing the metaphorical kitchen without even laying solid foundations.

The third idea was something I read, posted recently by one of my favourite bloggers, Kim Lajoie (I love that his surname seems to translate into English as “the joy”).  His article touched on creative direction, in the context of making a hit record (http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/what-is-creative-direction/).  This is where the vision of the song is articulated and the production and arrangement  decisions are made by the person (or persons, if the collaboration works) driving the overall artistic direction the work will follow.  Record producers often fulfil this role, deciding when the chorus should repeat, making the sound fuller, or deciding there is too much guitar and not enough vocal on the track.  In the recording studio, the engineers are like the structural engineers in the house building example and the musicians (session musicians or the guys in the band) are like the builders.

These three ideas connect intimately, in my view.  The creative vision is necessary to achieve a finished article with integrity, wholeness, uniqueness, character, personality, flair and unity, in my opinion.  In music, it’s usually the band leader or record producer that provides this creative direction.  In films, it’s usually the director.  In graphics or product design, it’s the creative director or chief designer.  In a start-up company, it’s usually the founder.  In software development, it’s the architect and chief software designer.  In every case, there is a guiding light giving the idea some spark, direction and dare I say it, taste.  Think about Steve Jobs, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Quincy Jones, Mutt Lange, etc.  In every case, there was one creative mind giving the collaborative work a form.

Sure, everybody else had skin in the game too and more often than not, the crafts people (musicians, builders, cinematographers, coders) provide just as much innovation and creativity as the guiding creative director, but that’s only when the collaboration is working.  When it isn’t, you get musical differences, in-fighting, power plays and other destructive behaviours that ultimately compromise the quality of the finished work and dilute the initial creative vision.

So, two things are clear: you need the creative direction to get something really good and yet the software industry is currently studiously designing this process right out of the picture.

Two questions arise:  1) why do some creative collaborations succeed splendidly, resulting in astounding results whereas others erupt into self destructive acrimony and 2) how does the software industry get the creative direction back into their agile development processes?  I think both of these questions have an answer rooted in Seligman’s notion of flourishing.

I believe that the most successful creative directors (insert actual job title here, depending on which collaborative creative endeavour you are thinking about) achieve their outstanding results by ensuring that every member of the creative team is experiencing the five pillars of Perma.  They make sure that the people who are creating their parts of the whole, to realise the creative director’s overarching vision, are experiencing joy, happiness, and enjoyment while collaborating.  Any collaborative, creative endeavour (or software development process, for that matter) that kills the fun, kills the sense of flourishing and the project falls apart.

Successful creative directors make sure their collaborators are fully engaged.  Nobody on the team feels devalued, spare, inferior or sidelined.  There are no prima donnas riding roughshod over everybody else’s artistic input, bullying them into silent submission.  No idea or contribution is ignored or ridiculed, but all are considered on the basis of whether or not they support the vision and if they don’t, the vision is either subtly modified to accommodate or the contribution is gently shaped until it is consonant with the wider artistic goals and direction.  Software development processes, as a case in point, that deny input from testers, the product owner or any other stakeholder with a valuable creative contribution to make, are sowing the seeds of the project’s own destruction, frankly.

Relationships are at the very heart of successful creative direction (and hence, software development).  People must feel like they matter, that they are liked within the team, that people respect them, that everybody interacts with each other in positive and supportive ways and that people feel like they matter for who they are, not just for their contribution.  People want to belong and feel valued as human beings.  Doomed collaborative projects make people feel like interchangeable cogs in a cruel, impersonal machine.  Agile software development processes can make developers feel very commoditised and dehumanised.  The entire language of burn down and fungible resources, working interchangeably on general purpose coding, can lead to team members feeling insecure and replaceable.  Even the architect is degraded.  Whether they are, in fact, replaceable or not is hardly the point.  The point is that in undermining these important team relationships, the quality of the finished work suffers immeasurably.

A successful creative collaboration, lead by a gifted creative director, gives team members the sense that they are doing something worthwhile, which in some way advances the lot of human kind in some small way.  It has to be a bigger goal than being paid a salary, keeping their job or enriching the founders.  The project needs to be making a difference and giving something back, to make the effort and sacrifice somehow worthwhile.  Where, in the agile software literature, is the need to ensure that the software development project, or individual features, or product backlog items, give the developers some sense of meaning?  I’ll tell you where.  Nowhere.  This, I think, is one of the great flaws of scrum, lean and other agile methodologies.  They don’t care whether the next sprint is constructing a means to permanently blind babies or to cure cancer.  For the project to succeed, the process absolutely, positively should care about such ethical and existential concerns.

Finally, successful creative collaborations and enlightened creative directors always make sure that people who contributed feel a sense of accomplishment, when they have turned in their work.  Celebrating the successes, basking in the glow of the awesome technical and artistic achievement, awarding and rewarding the contributors and spreading the word to anyone who will listen about what has been done by a group of talented, dedicated, innovative, creative, artistic, special and unique people has to be at the very top of the agenda.  In fairness, agile software development processes do have such an opportunity in the sprint retrospective, but it is somewhat negated by the focus on what went wrong and could have been done better.  To hell with that, at least for a moment.  Let’s all just feel good for making something damn fine.

What we should never do, yet very often do, in agile software development, is sweep this sprint’s deliverables under the carpet, as if taken for granted and begin sweating over the next sprint, without a moment to catch one’s breath.  This is precisely what agile does, in the name of efficiency and cost, but it robs the team and the creative work as a whole of the opportunity to refresh the team and bring out even greater creative output, by the simple act of appreciating the work done so far and of allowing the team to take some pride in the work they have given.  Celebrating is real work too, that pays tangible dividends in innovation (which can be patented), product quality and in unique selling points.  All of these things matter to the sponsoring business and it is so simple to preserve them, but oh so easy to wreck them too.  Guess what we usually do?

The agile software development process needs to make space for the architect and designer.  They sit somewhere between the product backlog and the sprint backlog, in my view.  It also needs to be less focussed on pure efficiency and more concerned with ethics, humanity, celebrating success, gelling the team, letting people play and have fun, giving people a reason to keep on being outstanding and, in short, ensuring that everybody flourishes.

For the same reasons and by the same means, film directors, record producers, leaders of art production workshops (e.g. Jeff Koons), heads of comedy writing teams, newspaper editors and a host of other people that lead and define the creative direction for larger collaborative creations also need to ensure that every contributor feels as though they are flourishing too.

I wonder if such changes will come about in my life time?

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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One Response to Where the Magic Happens

  1. Pingback: Where the Magic Happens | arlinesrodriguez

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