Posted by: rolfsky | March 14, 2008

on Ferraris and iPods

Pinin Farina's Cisitalia 202 GT

Curving lines, a sculpted body, more of an embodiment of passion rather than the shell of an automobile. To view the car above, there is no doubt that it is a thing of beauty. In fact, this car design is so pretty, it made its way to the MoMa in New York.

It comes as no surprise to me that this is an Italian design, crafted by the great Italian designer Battista “Pinin” Farina of later Pininfarina fame. The wholeness of it expresses a singularity of purpose, untainted by design committees or group decisions. This design is essentially the work of one man.

It is the work of one focus, one idea. While many designers likely put pen to paper, all their effort was channeled through one person who had the final say. This master designer controls the ultimate outcome, for better or worse.

In more recent history, we see this same singularity of control and purpose in another iconic product, the iPod and now the Airbook. Both master and commander, Steve Jobs imprints his values and visions on each Apple product with fierce consistency and clarity.

Steve Jobs hates buttons, so the iPhone only has one. He also feels that you should never need to right-click, so all Apple applications have clearly-defined shortcut keys. He designs for integration and simplicity, so the iPod is not only pretty chunk of metal and plastic, but also the entire music-delivery chain including iTunes.

From an organizational standpoint, this is definitely Conway’s Law in action. One king designer equals one ethos alone.

Conway’s Law roughly states that the organizational structure of a group directly correlates to the structure of its output. Five teams that report to one leader will likely create five distinct parts that roughly work as a whole. How well each part interacts with the other parts correlates to how well each team communicates with the others.

And is this so surprising? If part A and B need to function together, teams A and B need to agree upon how that integration happens. Poor communication about the standards between the teams will lead to poor integration between the parts.

In Apple and Pininfarina’s case, one indivdual controls and specifies the output, so it all looks and feels similar.

Compare and contrast this to the design-by-committee world of companies like Pontiac who can’t produce a good-looking car to save their lives. Or the Microsoft Windows world that won-over the personal PC market by opening the platform and increasing accessibility to developers, yet now enforces digital driver signing so that one poorly written (and un-reviewed) device driver doesn’t take down the entire machine.

And perhaps this all relates back to the toy duck syndrome... if you’re managing to a stock price on a quarterly basis, or worrying about wall-street, you’ve bound yourself to lead by committee. By allowing your choices to be guided by the goals and thoughts of an anonymous and unrelenting mass, haven’t you tied your hands against any meaningful decision?

In any decision, there is always someone who will lose out. Leadership is understanding these dangers and making the best decision anyway, always driving to a clear vision of the future.

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