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3/19/2014 | 2 MINUTE READ

In praise of ‘dictators’

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Collaboration is good, except when it’s not. Sometimes instead of many voices seeking harmony, a project needs one [forceful] voice to be successfully completed.


That was one somewhat surprising conclusion reached in a panel discussion at last month’s Packaging Conference (Feb. 3-5; Rosen Shingle Creek, Orlando). While talking about the development process for new packaging concepts, panel moderator, Peter Borowski—head of design at Kraft Foods—asked participants about any projects they felt had gone particularly well. This was after the group catalogued some less-than-auspicious efforts.

Ian Carnduff, senior VP at NiCE Ltd., an international design agency, quickly offered one common denominator in his success stories.

“Have a dictator,” Carnduff said. “Steve Jobs is a fantastic example of that: one man, one vision, do it that way. It can have a huge positive impact because everyone is going after that goal.”

In the prior discussion of packaging design gone awry, the panelists recalled projects where numerous silos within a company (accounting, purchasing, marketing, etc.) not only conflicted internally in interdepartmental dustups, but externally as well, battling with suppliers and packaging converters, among others.

“I think one problem is all the different agendas,” said Craig Sawicki, EVP and chief creative officer at packaging manufacturer, TricorBraun. “You can get all the different parties together, but purchasing still wants a low price; marketing wants to get its messaging through; and the plant guys want to run 1,000 bottles per minute. They’re running in parallel paths.”

And these are parallel paths that emphasize professional self preservation over product success, according to Carnduff.

“There's a tendency for a company to play it safe all the time,” Carnduff said. “The industrial designer just does shapes, others just do graphics—inherently, in corporate structures, there's a siloing that happens.”

For his part, Sawicki agreed with Carnduff on the dictator scenario, recounting one project where, “it was two guys, it was a vision, it was instantaneous decisions.” However, he admitted that type of situation is rare.

“You can't do that with big corporations,” Sawicki said. “There are silos that are always going to exist, and there are people that believe their opinions are more important than anybody else.”

So how can a project successfully navigate the corporate minefield?

“In big corporations, with every project, there's a sponsor and frankly, you have to know if that sponsor can drive the project all the way through,” Sawicki said. “If that sponsor has a vision that can't be made, try to steer him or her towards pragmatism.”

David Ball, associate client director at branding consultancy, Landor Associates, noted that whether your project has a dictator or a well-positioned ‘sponsor’, project success will be determined by that individual’s willingness to speak up.

“You have to have a leader that can make the tough call to say ‘Let’s stop and do this right; I'm going to do what’s right for the brand,’” Ball said. “People will forgive you if you're late, but they'll never forgive you if you're wrong. The most successful projects I’ve been involved with are ones where people are really empowered to say, ‘Let's stop.’”

Finally, Carnduff noted that beyond ineffectual leadership, there can be such a thing as too much involvement in a project.

“Imagine you're making an apple pie,” Carnduff said, “and everyone is sticking their fingers in the pie; eventually the pie just tastes like fingers.” 

Tastes like democracy?