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Urgency and accountability are two sides of the innovation coin

As organizations and individuals succeed, it gets more difficult to innovate. There are issues of coordination, sure, but mostly it's about fear. The fear of failing is greater, because it seems as though you've got more to lose.

So urgency disappears first. Why ship it today if you can ship it next week instead? There are a myriad of excuses, but ultimately it comes down to this: if every innovation is likely to fail, or at the very least, be criticized, why be in such a hurry? Go to some more meetings, socialize it, polish it and then, one day, you can ship it.

Part of the loss of urgency comes from a desire to avoid accountability. Many meetings are events in which an organization sits in a room until someone finally says, "okay, I'll take responsibility for this." If you're willing to own it, do you actually need a meeting, or can you just email a question or two to the people you need information from?

Thus, we see the two symptoms of the organization unable to move forward with alacrity, the two warning signs of the person in the grip of the resistance.  "I can take my time, and if I'm lucky, I can get you to wonder who to blame."

You don't need more time, you just need to decide.

Read the history of the original Mac and you'll be amazed at just how fast it got done. Willie Nelson wrote three hit songs in one day. To save the first brand I was responsible for, I redesigned five products in less than a day. It takes a team of six at Lays potato chips a year to do one.

The urgent dynamic is to ask for signoffs and to push forward, relentlessly. The accountable mantra is, "I've got this." You can feel this happening when you're around it. It's a special sort of teamwork, a confident desperation… not the desperation of hopelessness, but the desperate effort that comes from being hopeful.

What's happening at your shop?

Remind you of anything? Simple typography for non-professionals

Setting type used to have just one function: is it readable? Then, to save money, a new question: Can we get a lot of words on a page?

The third question, though, is the most dominant for most people making a presentation, designing a website, scoping out a logo or otherwise using type to deliver a message: How does it look?

The answer is not absolute. In some situations, some cultures, some usages, one type looks fine and another looks garish or silly or just wrong. And the reason is that whether we realize it or not, type reminds us of something we've seen before.

Here's an obvious example that I found floating around online:

Officialleaves

Here's another example… which one looks like a college you'd aspire to attend:

Harvard type

If you use a typeface that reminds me of the script on the menu of a French restaurant, then no, I'm not going to instinctively believe that you're a good doctor. If you use a thin, elegant wedding invitation font in your Powerpoint presentation, you haven't been clever, you've merely confused me.

Here's the amateur's rule of thumb: don't call attention to your typeface choices unless you want the typeface to speak for you. Instead, start with the look and feel of the industry leaders and go from there. The shortcut that I learned from design pioneer (and the world's first desktop publisher) John McWade: Use Franklin Gothic Condensed for your headlines and Garamond for your body copy. Change it if you want, but only when you want to remind me of something.

[And this is where the hard part shows up: by 'industry leader' I don't mean the company that makes the most profit. I mean the voice that has the most authority, that raises the bar, that is well dressed. And that means learning how to see. Do you see how the New York subway system uses typography that feels more confident and clear than a typical amusement park's signage? Until you see the difference, keep your hands away from the keyboard…]

Typography in your work isn't for you. It doesn't matter if you like it. It doesn't matter if the committee likes it. After legibility, all that matters is what the recipient is reminded of. (And yes, it's fine if the typography reminds your viewer of nothing at all, at least if your goal is to create the awe of the totally new).

If you use the standard Microsoft font in your Powerpoint presentation, it might be common, but it won't be powerful. If you use Comic Sans, it won't be common, but it won't be powerful either.

It's a bit like wearing a dark blue suit to a meeting with a banker. You can wear something else, sure, but make sure you want it to be noticed, because it will be.

And here's a bonus advanced idea from XKCD.

Professionals and those with a budget to hire one, feel free to ignore some of this. If you ask for attention to be paid to your typography, though, you need to own the outcome of that attention.

Your best and your same (vs. your different and your truth)

If someone wants your very best version, that probably means that they're going to get the same version that you've done before, the same as the best version you produced a week ago. If you want the best, it also means that you're asking someone to repeat what's come before.

On the other hand, if they want you, right here and right now, it won't be perfect. It can't be. It will merely be different and real and in the moment.

The opportunity in any given moment is to share your truth, to light a spark and to leap. But you can't do that at the same time you're being perfect.

Artists end up with clients, customers and supporters that don't demand the best. They merely demand the truth.

There is no best jazz performance. That's why it's interesting.

Blueberry pancakes and battleships

The typical industrial-era organization is like a battleship. Hundreds or thousands of people onboard, and most of them are essential–but most of them aren't actually directly responsible for the work that we hired the battleship to do. Without the fuel people, the navigation team, the folks in the med corps and on and on, it doesn't work.

The battleship can go far, with impact, and change the course of history. While it has exactly one captain, it's the synchronized work of more than a million people (when you think about all the machinists and support folks back home) and it works. It does what we ask it to do.

One more thing about the people on the battleship: just about everyone has a punchlist, an itemized inventory of what they need to get done. And many of them are rewarded for doing that set of tasks more efficiently, more elegantly and with better quality than expected. Great people means the system works even better, but it's designed to survive with people who are merely good at what they do.

The typical professional services company, on the other hand, is a lot like a blueberry pancake. While there's an essential support team, the firm is all about blueberries working in parallel. Each blueberry can work independently, and sometimes they even work on projects that might have conflicting outcomes or views of the world. I don't care how many people report to you. I care about how connected and how brave you are.

As the firm gets bigger, it doesn't get thicker. You don't make a better pancake by making a thicker one. You make a better pancake by hiring ever better blueberries.

And, as you've guessed, most of the blueberries don't know exactly what they'll be doing in six weeks, and most don't work from a manual about the industry's best practices on how to do what they do. It's hard to measure blueberries, but a talented and motivated one can also change the world.

Apple is now a battleship. Most of the tens of thousands of people who work there have a line job, selling, building, fixing or interacting. Only a few are dreaming up something that you can't even imagine.

Your favorite record label, though, ought to be a blueberry pancake. Each musical group is mostly alone, figuring out something that just might work. The goal isn't to lock and repeat and scale. It's to go wide and stay interesting. Great record labels have both better blueberries and the support staff to launch them into the world.

I remember the day we transformed Yoyodyne from a pancake to a battleship. We hired 17 salespeople in 24 hours (increasing the size of the company by 25%) and for the first time, I didn't know every employee well. People had their orders, and we were ready to scale.

If you want to make your battleship work better, be really clear about defining the mission, the tactics, the chain of command and most of all, precisely what you measure from each person on the team.

Your pancake, on the other hand, gives up swing weight and firepower and instead gets flexibility and the possiblity of non-fatal failure (and game-changing magic).

Both work. The problem kicks in when a successful pancake thinks its future is in the battleship business. Or when battleships are asked to dance.

The critic stumbles

Last week, I saw an extraordinary play on Broadway. It got the longest standing ovation I've ever seen in a theater, and Alan Cumming deserved every minute of it. The New York Times critic, though, didn't like the show.

What's the point of his review, then? Clearly the audience, discerning in their own right, disagreed. Do mainstream critics exist to tell us what to like, to warn us off from the not-so-good, or are they there to punish those that would dare to make a piece of work that doesn't match the critic's view of the world? Perhaps the critic is saying, "people like me will have an opinion like this," but of course, there just aren't that many people like him.

Have you noticed just how often the critics disagree with one another? And how often they're just wrong?

And yet we not only read them, but we believe them. Worse, we judge ourselves, contrasting our feelings with their words. Worse still, we sometimes think we hear the feared critic's voice before we even ship our work out the door…

For me, the opinion of any single critic is becoming less and less meaningful as I choose what to view or engage with. And the aggregate opinion of masses of anonymous critics merely tells me that the product or content is (or isn't) mass-friendly. I'm far more moved by the insistent recommendation of a credible, raving fan than I am the snide whispering of some people who just didn't get it.

The math is simple: no matter how big a critic's platform, what moves markets are conversations. And we are far more likely to have conversations about something we're raving about than something we didn't like (because when we don't like it, our friends never experience it and the conversation dies). The win, then, is creating raves, not avoiding pans.

Every single book I've written has gotten at least a few one star reviews on Amazon. Every one. The lowest possible rating, the rating of, "don't bother reading this, in fact it never should have been written." Not just me, of course. Far better writers, writers like Fitzgerald, Orwell and Kincaid have gotten even more one-star reviews on their books than I can ever hope to.

No one has ever built a statue to a critic, it's true. On the other hand, it's only the people with statues that get pooped on by birds flying by.

Writing tip: say it backwards

If your writing feels like nothing but easily defensible aphorisms, as if you're saying things that are obvious, it's entirely possible that no one is going to eagerly keep reading. Your real estate brochure or the ad copy you've written–if it's merely posturing or bragging, better to not say it at all. We already know you think you did something great.

Consider the alternative. Say the opposite. That your condo isn't right for everyone. That your software might be overpriced. That this new model car is in fact quite difficult to use.

And then tell us why. We'd love to know how you're going to wriggle out of that. And along the way, if your story is a good one, we might even give it a try.

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