Ownership: Artist or Engineer?

There are varying ways that a client / service relationship can work, and this view can be the cause of harmony or discord in projects. It’s something I’ve understood for a while, but had trouble explaining at times. What follows is an attempt to explain my view of something that knowledge workers need to understand to have a successful and fulfilling career.

The Artist

When an artist does work, we typically think of them as having complete control of the work. This is certainly true in the case where the eventual owner is not yet determined. Meaning an artist creates, and then sells directly or via a gallery to the public. Even commissioned artwork has only varying levels of control. A commissioned portrait certainly falls into the realm of work that would come with constraints. After everyone involved is dead and gone, people tend to remember the artist, not the owner.

The Engineer

When work is not sponsored, but contracted, it begins to fall into a completely different classification. Though you may refer to it as “artwork”, a visual painting done for advertising is really more “creative” work for hire. Certainly work that is more functional (like a bridge) comes with rigid requirements. This is the attitude of the engineer. That work is asked to meet certain goals, and ultimately subject to the approval of the buyer. While the engineer is an expert who expects to provide guidance, but does so at the behest of the client. In terms of credit, this world is muddled. Sometimes it is the architect, other times it is the owner or visionary that is remembered.

What does any of this have to do with consulting, software development, functional work, or any other type of service industry? Don’t get caught up in the work medium (paint, steel, code), or left brain / right brain aspect of the work, but just consider the metaphor in terms of relationship to the client and ownership of responsibility. In my world (consulting in the areas of software development, creative, marketing, etc) this distinction makes a big difference. All of these types of work have a right-brained aspect to them. People think of software development as a very regimented thing, but there is a lot of freedom to work in your own styles and patterns. Languages are fairly abstract these days, and they are high level enough to provide nearly infinite ways to solve complex problems. Certainly I don’t need to discuss how easy it is for a graphic designer to relate to an abstract artist.

Here’s where the risk is of confusing yourself with having the control an artist does, when you do not. The consultant works in a world where the client owns the final product. And the project would never even exist but for the idea and financial commitment of the client. Deadlines, requirements and other constraints are all part of the context. “Ownership” of the direction is a privilege that goes to the person that takes the risk. While an artist that is producing works for sale is bearing the risk that the piece will not sell, the bridge builder is not. It was sold before the project started. Sure, many contracts include shared risk clauses, but for all intents and purposes, the risk is on the client.

It is arrogant and unproductive for a paid consultant to believe they have the final say in work. They have the right to turn down work. And some clients may choose to give control over to the consultant, but that is their choice, not a right of the consultant.

When a consultant is doing work for hire and thinks they have the privilege that come with the artist mentality, it easy to develop a disdain for the client. Whereas in the engineering mindset, it is understood that one can recommend to the client, but ultimately the idea must sell itself. There is no expectation that the consultant wins because they are the subject matter expert. They are expected to be able to convey their idea and it’s merits in plain English and at a level understood by someone outside the field. In short, they must sell the idea.

Am I saying that workers should not have principals? Not at all. Take the story of Howard Roark, the principal’ed architect of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark suffered while turning down business as he would only work on buildings where his style of architecture was called for and he had the free hand to build modern and innovative buildings. He turned down others with work that would not satisfy him, but he did so respectfully. In this fictional work Roark has many enemies, but not the clients he turns down. A read sympathizing with Roark may agree with those clients, but it’s hard to see them as malicious.

The problem is that so many give away the right to have those principles for the sake of expediency without realizing they gave up that control. So they still expect the control. As an example, coming to work for a consulting company, you give up that right. Why? I’ve already made the point that the client has control, so you can only control work by selecting projects that meet your criteria, or working with clients who are ceding control. But as an employee of the company, you are giving up the client selection privilege in order to minimize your risk and investment. The consulting company provides you with a salary, book of work, etc, in return for your work. You do not get to control what work the company takes or not. It is your choice to leave if their client base does not suit you.

Too easily do I see people in the business blame owners and clients for work they do not like. But owners and clients anted up. They paid for the right to call the shots. If you want them to call the shots differently, it is your obligation to sell them on those ideas. Not your right to complain if the idea is not sold.

So what should someone who believes in the artist mentality do? There are people that believe so strongly in the control of their output. Folks like this tend to idolize people they view as uncompromising, like a Steve Jobs. (It’s worth noting that there are a lot of signs that he compromised more than the public perceived).

There are some simple solutions. Being an independent consultant means that you can turn down work that does not fit preferred principles. Owning / building your own consulting firm allows you the control of selecting your projects and clients. The third option is to return to the artists root of non-commissioned work. In other words, start a product company. While your clients have say in the form of sales, you are free to put whatever product you see fit on the market that can be held to only your standards. For all the knowledge workers that idolize Steve Jobs and he uncompromising reputation, it is worth remembering that he started and returned to a product company.

Media is a great analogy. Being an independent musician, filmmaker, or game developer is hard. You have to market for yourself, sell each product, secure distribution, etc. But for that price, you have control of the product. Signing with a publisher makes those tasks easier, but you have to be aware of the conditions you agreed to with the publisher. Like any contract or relationship, you should consider what those terms will mean in good times and in bad.

This is not to say that the rest of us don’t have some control and determination of our own destiny. It’s just that you have to remember you only have one lever to pull, leaving the company. You can negotiate terms based on a company or client’s desire to have you be a part of the team. But to get emotional about it, or think you have a right to control without taking the primary risk is folly.

XBoxOne’s Problem With Mixed Metaphors

Blue Ocean Strategy is a powerful thing. The Wii took great advantage of this, as has Apple and others. Some people try to cite this as an example of the direction for Microsoft’s upcoming XBoxOne. But that ocean isn’t blue anymore. Older parents and grandparents that bought Wii’s aren’t looking for another box. Certainly not one with 3 Operating Systems and a camera.

The Wii was an innovative and mass-market product that hit big before tablets, and during the early days of touch phones. They have taken over the “casual” gaming market.

So what does that leave? The Smart TV / Living-Room audience. That was the stated goal of the XBox project when it launched… to “invade the living room.” IGN in particular has been jumping all over this point when defending the strategy. Saying the mass market is so much bigger than the gaming market. So what of that argument? Sony and Nintendo aren’t making serious runs as the all-in-one living room box. Is that the win for Microsoft?

That argument forgets Roku players, Apple TVs, Google TV, tivo, smart TVs and all of the other sub-$100 products in this market space. Sure, they don’t do as much. And that innovation could come at a much lower cost.

How hard would it be for Apple or Roku to make an ipad app with Siri features that controls an Apple TV or Roku box? Now I have a touch screen remote and voice commands for my entertainment.

And all of those companies are good at consumer devices. Much more consistent than the Microsoft track record with Zune, Surface, etc.

Add to it things that don’t work in a new digital world. Take today’s Penny Arcade discussion on backwards compatibility for digital assets. Microsoft didn’t think that one through.

I’m not trying to pile on. I hope there are multiple good next-gen consoles. But if you’re going to play in the consumer device model, you have to remember who’s already there, and what they have conditioned consumers to expect.

Teachable Moments

This is a quick thought. But a pattern has been on my mind lately. A lot of leaders want their employees to listen to them and learn from them.

However, when that same leader is questioned by their employees, they often don’t want to have to justify decisions. Do this “because I told you to.”

Why not let your ideas stand on their own merit? If a subordinate wants to engage in discussing the value of an idea, that sounds like an opportunity to teach them (or learn from them if they are right).

A Book List About Lean-Style Methodologies

Recently, my job has changed a bit. I’ll probably write about that in a post coming up, but for now it suffices to say that I’m definitely spending more time than usual thinking about entire projects and all aspects of the project. Naturally that has me thinking about process more. I have always tended to prefer Agile methodologies, and the Lean flavors in particular.

However, I didn’t feel that I really had a solid background in the lean parts. While I’ve understood the processes and motions and studied Lean manufacturing in college, some of the motivations and subtleties are tied to a deeper understanding. I feel like I needed to spend some time reading the best works on the subject. Practical experience on lean teams is great, but I wanted more.

With that in mind, I reached out to Rick Simmons (@simmons3k). I used to intern for Rick way back in my college days and we keep up and discuss software, Agile from time to time. Rick is an Agile Coach for Rally, and at one time helped implement and improve Agile processes at Constant Contact. Needless to say, he’s an expert in the area. Rick was kind of enough to give me a list of Lean books that he recommended, and I got the idea to publish the list as a post with his permission.

I’ve linked to each book directly, but if you prefer I have a public Amazon list for the books as well available here.

As I read some of these, I intend to follow up with more posts about what specific lessons I took away from each one. Feel free to follow up with your thoughts in the comments below.

Find The Agile Signers On The Web

If you’re interested in seeing what the signers of the agile manifesto are up to these days, I’ve compiled a list with twitter and blog links below. If you use twitter lists, I’ve created on here.

If you have any corrections, please post in the comments below.

signer twitter blog github
Kent Beck @kentbeck blog kentbeck@github
Mike Beedle @mikebeedle blog  
Arie van Bennekum @arievanbennekum blog  
Alistair Cockburn @totheralistair blog  
Ward Cunningham @wardcunningham blog wardcunningham@github
Martin Fowler @martinfowler blog martinfowler@github
James Grenning @jwgrenning blog jamesgrenning@github
Jim Highsmith @jimhighsmith blog  
Andrew Hunt @pragmaticandy blog  
Ron Jeffries @ronjeffries blog  
Jon Kern @muddyallen blog jonkernpa@github
Brian Marick @marick blog marick@github
Robert C. Martin @unclebobmartin blog unblebob@github
Steve Mellor      
Ken Schwaber @kschwaber blog  
Jeff Sutherland @jeffsutherland blog drpentode@github
Dave Thomas @pragdave blog