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The Devil Wears Prada And The Role of Mercurial, Nasty Creative Bosses.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on July 6, 2006

The fashion industry and its symbiotic cousin, the fashion industry media, are notorious for their impossible, bad-tempered, cruel, insulting, arrogant bosses. Whether they are running fashion houses or fashion magazines, these bosses hire and fire on a whim, change things on a hunch and drive everyone around them crazy.

But they are creative. So is the cost worth it? Bob Sutton at Stanford has a calculation that might help answer the question. It’s TCA—Total Cost of A…..” Sorry I can’t use the word on the blog but check out Bob’s thoughtful analysis of the gains and losses an organization faces in having one of these “devils” of design at the helm. Sutton has a book coming out on the subject shortly based on a Harvard Business Review article. In sum, Sutton things the costs outweigh the benefits of mercurial bosses. But not only. Apple’s Steve Jobs always comes on up in this conversation, says Sutton, and he is certainly worth it.

Reader Comments

Tom Guarriello

July 7, 2006 11:50 AM

Jobs may be the exception, but as Teresa Amabile points out in her extensive research on creativity, nasty A****** bosses of the type Sutton describes discourage innovation by stifling the "will to risk" at the heart of the "fail fast" dynamic BW calls out on its cover this week. (Henry Petroski's book, "Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design" also treats this subject excellently.)

Don't be fooled: the "motivation" provided by abusive people comes at a very high price. I've seen both abusing and "context building" design leaders over the years and the contrast in cultures built by the two (the true test of a leader) is stark.

Douglass Turner

July 7, 2006 1:26 PM

Coming from the software world,
This whole issue of out-sized out-of-control egos is one of the key aspects of the design world I find most troubling. I suspect it is a major reason designer types will have difficulty ever gaining real influence and power within organizations trying to get innovative, creative, etc.

Time and time again I have found truly outstanding software people to also tend to be kind, generous, and enjoyable to be around.

Remember that much the technology powering Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, and eBay was developed by physically dispersed teams of software engineers most of whom have never met face to face yet have found a way to work well together to create something extraordinary.

This is inconceivable in the design world. Makes you think huh?


Bob Sutton

July 9, 2006 11:33 PM

To follow-up on Bruce's comments, the overall point of "The No A-hole Rule" is that people who persistently demean and instill fear others do a great deal of damage. And in fact, as Tom Guariello's comment says, one of the effects is undermining creativity because people are afraid to fail.

My forthcoming book has 7 chapters, and 6 focus on the damage done by these demeaning jerks, how to build organizations that don't hire and breed these jerks, and how survive working with them if you can't escape. But I felt compelled to point out the times when being jerk seems to help, or at least when jerks are allowed to get away with being jerks. So, yes, it is clear to me that Jobs qualifies as both an a-hole and a genius. But it bothers me that so many people have allowed him to get away with it. I think it is partly a flaw in our society, where we allow "winners" to get away with almost anything. As one of my friends said about Jobs, he proves that if you are really big winner, you can get away with being a very big really bug jerk.

Although I admire his work, I wouldn't want to work for Jobs, and in fact, quite a bit of social psychological research -- include by Teresa Amabile -- shows that we (human beings, that is) tend to view nasty people as less likeable, but more intelligent than nice people. I also show why a-holes often believe that their demeaning ways are helping them succeed when -- sort of like alcoholics who still manage to do their jobs -- they are succeeding despite rather than because of their flaws.

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November 8, 2010 2:01 PM

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Yes, I think that our government will follow suit. This is what they need to do anyways. It will only be helpful for the common man.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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