The invisible hand

Leading a team and clients to the best business outcomes often means taking a step into obscurity, says Scott Compton. 

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” That line from the 1990s cult movie The Usual Suspects, is uttered by the psychologically dark character Keyser Soze, who is played with inimitable professionalism by actor Kevin Spacey. Soze was an enigma who steered the scene-by-scene action, deftly, but without intrusion. 

This uncommon skill, orchestrating a project minus imposition, is one that business leaders use all the time. But where people are employed for their singular ‘vision’, is this still relevant? Is an invisibility cloak just as essential to the sartorial toolbag?

As a graduate designer, I was infatuated with the idea of the ‘idea’. On the face of it, such lovesick obsession seems reasonable. The idea is, after all, the single biggest asset in any designer’s repertoire.

Today, though, when innovation is at the core of entrepreneurship, the idea spans every facet of commerce – from new products to better processes that help a business thrive or expand. If you look beyond the usual suspects for an idea that is specific, relevant, but also fresh, it can drive any project forward. The Holy Grail, of course, that of which we are all in dogged pursuit of, is an ‘original’ idea. However, given the availability and exposure of information in today’s fully connected society it is difficult if not impossible to find unprecedented concepts. 


Don’t own it, share it

At college, my fellow students and I would jealously guard our ‘great’ ideas. We wanted to be unique, the creative centre of the universe. We imagined that was what it meant to be successful. No wonder we were so afraid of failing. That naïve perspective is dangerous when you venture out into a world where other people invest their trust in your creativity. The best ideas never grow wings if they are held close like a precious object. 

The ‘idea’ is an interesting psychological animal, and it can be destructive when the origin of one is disputed; many a relationship has fallen apart because of perceived appropriation of a peer’s thinking.

There is a wonderful scene in Season 4 of Mad Men which encapsulates this. Eager young copywriter Peggy Olson decides to confront company director Don Draper who has just received a Clio award for a commercial. The finished version of the advert clearly takes its kernel from an idea that Olson first tabled. Draper’s subsequent dressing down of his protégé is a superb insight into the business ownership of IP. It makes painful viewing, but his argument is that collaboration and collective effort has created a better result, which benefits all, not just the individual. 

The biggest problem with idea generation is the first-past-the-post mentality; the saying ‘your first idea is always your best’ feeds into this mind-set. Sometimes your first idea is lumpen and awkward. So, on the contrary, it’s important to have the ability to collectively explore as many ideas as possible so that no stone is left unturned. 

Those who are anxious to generate and keep ideas as their own can very quickly reach the edge of their ability. They are limited by their own set of experiential references.


Guiding principles

This is where thought liberation comes in – the process of being able to coax the development of ideas from colleagues, collaborators and clients. A business leader’s skill is to curate the flow of imagination and harness the creative powers of others, almost imperceptibly.

 As a principal at Warren and Mahoney architects, I’ve seen this happen on several occasions. When the studio refurbished the TVNZ headquarters in Auckland (pictured) last year, the overarching idea for the scheme, ‘open and live’, came from an unlikely source in the corporate sector of the broadcasting company.

This signature phrase gave the team momentum and the project added meaning as the character of that terminology was explored. 

Surrendering to the organic process by giving ideas the emancipation they deserve is both expedient and fair. For collaborations to be truly fruitful, team leaders need to be comfortable and gracious in letting others’ ideas emerge. Like Keyser Soze, it helps to put on the invisibility cloak. “The greatest trick a manager ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” And like that… he is gone.


Scott Compton is a principal at architects Warren and Mahoney.

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