How I Learned to Love Superlatives

When people say things like “it changed my life” or “it was the greatest experience ever,” I tend to distrust them. I guess I don’t trust superlatives in general; they seem like placeholder descriptions that preface what people are really trying to say.

That said, the AIGA/Harvard program was one of the best weeks of my life.

This is about how each day started: Eight o’clock a.m. Eight of us sit with coffee around a table. A group of us work through that morning’s cases-Apple’s competitive advantage and the personal computer industry since the 1990s; Black & Decker’s focus on maximizing segment profitability through a harvesting strategy; and finance, dear god finance, through an analysis of the financial viability of Butler Lumber.

It could have been a Monday morning editor roundup at the Wall Street Journal, a weekly status meeting for S&P’s business analysts, or an attentive set of MBAs studying for an upcoming exam.

Instead, this was a group of designers.

“Business Perspectives for Design Leaders,” the AIGA program at Harvard Business School that took place this past summer, requires superlatives. And a lot of them. It was up there with the most invigorating and innervating experiences of my career. It also happened to single-handedly change my perspective; I’ll never look at things the same way again. When someone shows you an entire dimension of your profession that you’ve never seen — the profession you are supposed to be an expert in; that you are an expert in — it, well, changes everything.

It begins by making you feel quite humble. The program promised to be five intense days at one of the most prestigious ivy-league institutions with forty-three of AIGA’s most senior design executives. A quick visit to the website reveals that it aims to:

“Help creative leaders discover opportunities within the forces transforming the business environment. The knowledge gained will enable them to assume the complex task of leading and making a difference in a world where change has become the only constant.”

Reading the profiles beforehand, my own seemed awkwardly wedged between those of design leaders from Citibank to Sterling Brands to Disney to Pentagram. I was to read twelve case studies and two books before I even arrived. I certainly didn’t feel qualified and I hadn’t even gotten there yet.

But from the first evening, it was clear that this program wasn’t out to intimidate or make us feel nervous. It was about how quickly we could drop what we came with to become part of something new. It was about feeling comfortable enough to let our guard down and being open to immersing ourselves in superlatives.

And superlative it was. Each day was a series of rigorous discussion groups, classes on strategy, finance, marketing, operations, and corporate ethics, lunches, dinners, drinks, and all the really important stuff that happens in between. Discussion groups were small, and getting together with the same group every day provided a nice consistency. Our group, led by the fantastic instigator, Christopher Gavin, marched us through the material each day. The people in our group were nothing short of remarkable so I must mention every one of them — Michael Bierut, Jenifer Gulvik, Marcus Hewitt, Max Nelson, Brigette Sullivan, and Jean-Laurent Vilon-brought great insights to the otherwise dense case studies every morning. No matter how late the night before, we were all on time and engaged every single morning. We attended classes together each day, lined up in alphabetical order across the classroom with giant nametags at our desks (so the instructors could call on us without breaking flow).

What’s most surprising to me is not that I learned so much, but that business thinking can, in fact, apply to many areas, most often forgotten about: the design process. After a couple of years of believing that the MFA is the new MBA, I’m no longer sure. In fact, the old MBA is probably the new MFA, if anything. With programs like Stanford’s d-school focused on bringing design to business, who is focused on bringing business to design? I can’t not mention that AIGA offers initiatives such Harvard, the Center for Practice Management, and conferences such as “Gain.” But beyond that, where can we turn?

For now, I’ll continue to consider some of the Harvard lessons. They include, in part, the following:

1. Even messy dilemmas have structure.
The way that our instructors helped us unpack the case studies was truly magical. Jan Rivkin, head of the AIGA program, was so exacting in his methodology that he climbed the chalkboards, literally, to get us to the answers. Business cases like the success of Wal-Mart, Nutrasweet, or Marvel Inc., where it was not clear at all what the senior management should do had quite rational and logical answers. I learned that business problems may not have one right answer, but there are certainly better and worse answers. And, as it turns out, there is a logical and reasonable way to get to the best answer. It’s just a matter of deciding.

2. Admitting you don’t know is the first step.
My natural reaction, particularly when working on new projects, is to appear that I understand. I want the client and the project team to know that I’m “with them,” so the best way to do this is to nod and agree. Wrong. I learned that creating an environment where the client or project lead thinks I understand seems to be the right path at the moment quickly snowballs into a bad place full of missed expectations and unclear conversations. Harvard showed me that by just saying I don’t know, entire new dimensions are revealed. It was only when faced with information that I know nothing about — Net Present Value, discount ratios, finance in general — was this clear. Robin Greenwood, our finance professor, showed us ways of looking at the world that none of us had seen-not just about running a business, but about how to understand the value of leasing a car, understanding mutual funds, things that affect us both as people and professionals.

3. Intimidation leads to inspiration. I learned not to be intimidated by people who know things I don’t. Tuesday afternoon was spent in a six-hour leadership training session where the professional centerpiece was a presentation to our colleagues at the end. Sitting alongside the head of director of global design for Disney and professor of design at Carnegie Mellon’s Design School, I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly contribute. As it turns out, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations urges you grow and learn. We all were, as it turned out, intimidated by something and therefore opened ourselves up to be inspired by one another. Intimidation encourages a kind of intimacy, vulnerability perhaps, that actually opened me to be inspired like never before.

4. There’s a 90/10 rule.
Communication is 90% about how you tell the story and 10% about what you tell. Through a kind of performance training, we learned not to underestimate the value of good storytelling in presenting an argument or persuading. The facilitators we had most often teach actors how to have “presence.” Remarkably, through this training, it was clear that presentation style won out over content every time. Shelly Evenson had an incredibly compelling story to tell, but it was the quiet force in her presentation style that drew us in. Maurice Conti, on the other hand, used the room, lying down on the coffee table to present his story. Sometimes it is the medium after all.

5. Be uncomfortable and do it often.
Doing this, going out of my way to put myself in an uncomfortable situation paid off. Removing myself from a process where people know me well, from colleagues who know what I’m capable of, and placing myself in the middle of unfamiliar territory might just be one of the rewarding moves I have made. I’m going to do it as often as possible.

Monday morning back at the office presented a challenge. Would I return to The Way Things Were? Would anyone? Only time will tell. I must admit, I looking into admission requirements for the business school when I returned. After all, I do believe the old MBA is the new MFA. In the meantime, at least now I can evaluate The Way Things Were from a business point of view.