That’s It. That’s the One.

To be honest, I won’t miss Mad Men, the overwrought fashion show with vellum-thin treatments of politics, feminism, and pop culture we’re asked to nod and wink at. Emotionally, I’m not drawn to Don’s downward spiral like I was with Tony Soprano or Walter White, who seemed to struggle on more fertile and less claustrophobic landscapes.

Regardless, I’ve watched Mad Men–all 85 episodes so far.

Perhaps I’ve watched them for the nostalgia (I’m the same age as Don Draper’s first son Bobby and lived in a household almost identical). Or, perhaps I’ve watched hoping to finally see a louche cad redeemed.

But I know I really watched Mad Men for the process. The creative process.

I watched Mad Men for its hip, jazzy view into the advertising sausage factory: The pedestrian challenge of promoting baked beans when catsup is all the rage, the immersion in baked bean psychology, the zeitgeist of home-cooked meals, then the ideas, ideas, sketches, sketches, sketches, catch phrase after catch phrase over boozy dinner gamesmanship, war-room tables or napkins in a beatnik bar.

All to get Don Draper to say, “That’s It. That’s the One.”

The creative process, at least the one pictured in Mad Men, was a long, relentless, and often ruthless search for the one idea that would stop a room cold and breathless. It was Freudian self-analysis for professionals with no time for Freud.

As an Agile software guy, the creative process pictured in Mad Men stings like a wasp. We soldier through sprints, burndowns, backlogs, stories, tasks, and defects, all in anticipation of an emotionless demo on Friday. We’ve relegated the idea generation to the backroom, bringing Sal Romano and his production team to the front room, and three the Creative Director off the roof (Mr. Weiner, if someone has to go over the edge this last season, please let it be Pete).

We’ve minimized creative visionaries, the professionals with experience and taste. In a relentless effort to deliver quality software, we’ve skipped inspiration, talent, and even cunning, letting customers in Nebraska, South Dakota, or Pacoima tell us what’s good. We’re no longer waiting for “That’s it. That’s the One.”.

“Look at Google,” I’ve heard. “They released before it was beautiful and everyone loved it. So ship it.”

Now we’re mob approved.

This has all happened before in other media in the past, of course: Bauhaus, EDM, Jeff Koons. Years later, we still want some of that technology in our lives. But most of it, not so much.

I know Mad Men is just a TV show. It’s an idealized, time-compressed version of the creative process. But it’s as close to the truth as television can be, I think. I’ve worked with some of the best Creative Directors in the business and Mad Men’s way of getting to the “That’s It. That’s the One” is pretty close to what I’ve seen: The best creative people absorb the problem, the customer, pop culture, and whatever comes their way, then they and their teams spew ideas until the night before it’s due.

And nothing goes out until the Creative Director is moved.

Great Creative Directors have the ability to sense the ignored emotional need. They revel in details and notice the flaws that are invisible to most. They create beauty by pointing out something we’ve not noticed before. And, in front of the guy with the checkbook, a good Creative Director can spin it into a yarn in a funny and charming way. They can sell concepts that blow past bigotries. They are bold and not easily dissuaded by last week’s multivariate test. They are sensitive, yet willing to stand out and lead.

And, they are almost always touchy.

Unfortunately, Scrum doesn’t really cotton to that type. In our rush to get software out the door on a daily basis, we minimize opinionated egomaniacs and go for folks who make it function.

Technology itself facilitates this need for speed. Because of its malleability we can always release it and fix it later. Everything’s always and forever in Beta, capricious and evanescent.

A magazine ad, on the other hand, is out and gone forever, unfixable, even if a model’s nipple slipped. In technology, you don’t really need a sharp eye, because some guy on Reddit will quickly bring it to your attention.

So, how do we fix this situation?

Here’s a few recommendations that I admit are not new. They’re almost nostalgic (not 1960s Mad Men nostalgic, but Model T nostalgic). Graham Wallas’ The Art of Thought (1926) described a 4-step creative process that I think still holds today:

  1. Preparation: First, let’s grow and respect talented creative from associates to Executive Creative Directors. Most companies say “We’re all about good design” (see the recent, yet hard-to-swallow Harvard Business Review article by Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit), but are we really ready to put hiring practices, staffing plans, and training in place to grow great creative folks? Second, let’s drop the idea that an Agile team is just engineers, QA, a Scrum Master and a Product Owner. At SXSW this year, I heard a prominent leader in the Agile community ask a crowded room “Are designers part of the scrum team?” Is that still even in question? Let’s agree that designers are as integral to the daily process as coders (and for god’s sakes POs, bring creative to client meetings. Can you imagine Roger Sterling walking into the Chevrolet pitch without Don Draper?). Finally, let’s agree to better define the problem we’re asking our creative folks to solve. I’m not sure bringing back design briefs is the answer, but helping the entire team understand the personas we’re solving for and engaging the team in deep conversations about their problems will help.
  2. Incubation: Good creative need lots of time and lots of inputs. Let’s allow our teams to surf the web, go see a movie, have a drink, and take a nap. Let them float above the sprint process for a while. In fact, give the whole team time to marinate. No, I’m not promoting alcoholism or laziness. I’m promoting human relationships and trust. We’re not machines, but we still need grease for the gears to move and mesh.
  3. Illumination: Sketch together as a team. Sketch, sketch, and more sketches. Never discount the bad ideas. Sometimes the good ones are hiding inside. Take a big chance.
  4. Verification: Inspiration doesn’t mean you can’t user test or focus group your ideas. But for the tests to be useful, there has to be a supportive, listener environment where you can see and hear the potential combinations your users are making. Ultimately, we need to have great respect for the emotional impact our software has on users, but let teams follow their hunch. There’s no A/B test for good poetry.

There is power in creativity, in the small connections we’ve previously ignored. Despite the work of the saints who disprove my point (Jobs, Ive, Starck, Fadell, et al.), I believe we’ve mostly lost creative sensitivity in software development because we’re moving so damned fast.

I’d like to think Mad Men has given us a tiny glimpse into what really works: The idea, the effort, the ennui, then the hope. I think the software process pendulum has swung far enough toward efficiency and needs to swing back, lie down, and relax a little.

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