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product / management / creativity

Louis Vuitton | Breaking the mould of innovation management

. 12 min read .

Any person passionate about doing creative work does so, knowingly or unknowingly, in order to satisfy primarily three needs: self-expression, self-enrichment and connection.

Whether an illustrator, a chef, a graffiti artist, a developer or a copywriter; these craftsmen need work in which they have a degree of creative freedom through which they can express themselves, an element of challenge that enables them to grow as creators and a platform through which they can share their creations with the world.

The responsibility of a (product) manager - I believe- is to create an environment in which (product) creators  like developers, designers and marketeers flourish and  get to produce their best work.

Such approach minimises deadlines, optimises for psychological safety instead of numbers, prioritises stability, puts the team above the customer, minimises processes, deems customer feedback as just an other input instead of the truth, encourages thoughtful disagreements and treats the manager as the problem definer and the team as a whole as the solution finders.

This philosophy of optimizing for craftsmanship is a rather cotroversioal one in the tech world but not at all in the world of high fashion.

Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH is a believer of this philosophy. LVMH manages brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bvlgari. Whether the product is a watch, a perfume, a clothing collection, a handbag or a wine, LVMH puts this craftsmanship mindset at the center of every process and decision thus growing into a a company with a market cap of over 100 billion.

If you believe that high fashion management doesn't have many parallels with product management in tech, you might be surprised...

Note: Nothing presented below is posed as a 'best practice'. Instead the purpose is to offer an alternative fresh approach to how one can 'manage' creatives and innovation.

Artists are not to be managed. Employees are.

Artists must be completely unfettered by financial and commercial concerns, he insists, to do their best work.
[...]
If you think and act like a typical manager around creative people—with rules, policies, data on customer preferences, and so forth—you will quickly kill their talent.

This is NOT to say that artists have to be completely shielded in their artistic bubble. They should not be creating in a space of no budget/time or other limitations. Instead; the point here is much more subtle: as PMs we should protect our team from the various outside forces that might inhibit their creativity and flow.

This is done by acting as a filter that clears out the noise and only offers signal to them. Bug reports, performance, tech debt, user research, strategic priorities, OKRs, dependencies, competitor, market state, feature requests, AB test results, budgeting limitations, deadlines, requests from higher up, shitstorms. If you want them to come up with solutions that match their talents; be very selective with the information you feed to them. This is not lying; it is clearing the noise from the signal. It is making a service to their creative abilities.

This filtering function of all the influx of information is one of the most important functions of a PM.

I don’t have alarm bells when it comes to creativity.
[...]
Our philosophy is quite simple, really. If you look over a creative person’s shoulder, he will stop doing great work.

True creative people don't need elaborate specs, step-by-step instructions or solutions served in a solver platter. In essence, they don't need the PM to define the the solution (the WHAT). Finding the ideal solution is to be done by the team as a whole; not the PM (though they will have strong opinions about that and will probably be the ultimate decision maker). What the PM is responsible for is defining the problem (the WHY). Why are we solving this problem, for whom and how shall we measure success.

The HOW is also fully owned by the creative team. The PM should definitely be kept in the loop by showing interest about progress, giving ocational feedback or suggestions, challenging the creatives and making sure that the team is not diverting from the goal. But micromanagement is a step too far and the worst thing a manager could do.

Some people confuse being a manager with being an expert at something. In fact that is quite the opposite. Managers are managers because they chose NOT to be experts. A senior PM is less expert in design than an entry level ui designer any day. Our job title does not give us the authority to micromanage any creative work that happens around us.

PMs need to give teams time and space to create. They need to create an enviroment of trust, autonomy, accountablity and psychological safety.

Rory Sutherland in Alchemy explains how adding technocrats to the creative process can stiffen the element of 'magic' in the work. Removing magic is the same as removing your creative edge; and with that, the ability to innovate.

And just as important, to allow creativity to happen, a company has to be filled with managers who have a certain love of artists and designers—or whatever kind of creative person you have in your company. If you deeply appreciate and love what creative people do and how they think, which is usually in unpredictable and irrational ways, then you can start to understand them.

We don't get to 'tolerate' creatives. We don't get to call them divas. We are only to admire them and consider them the bloodline of our team and business.

The calm after the -creative-storm

The LVMH production process is the exact opposite of its creative process, which is so freewheeling and chaotic.

There is a reason engineers and designers hate meetings so much. They know that the best work comes from focused sprints of uninterrupted work.

Have you signed a spec off? Think twice before adding, removing or changing anything.
Have you given your feedback? You had your time to have your say. Don't stand on top of the illustrator's shoulder.
Have the priorities at the top reshuffled? Tell the team but think 10 times before you decide to stop everything and turn 180 degrees.

You cannot rush the training of the artisans or the planning of the atelier to make a product at maximum efficiency.

One cannot rush creativity so deadlines are stiffening innovation. Goals are fine; deadlines are not when you seek good creative work. It is our responsibility as PMs to foster an environment of creative flow and protect it above all costs.

On hiring the right people

The responsibility of the manager in a company dependent on innovation, then, very much becomes picking the right creative people—the ones who want to see their designs on the street. […] “How can I see into a person’s DNA, to know if he is an artist with commercial instincts?” So I will answer, it just takes experience. Years of practice—trial and error—and you learn.

Here Arnault makes an important distinction between a creator who has a desire to see her/his creations out in the world vs the creator who is solely focused on pushing boundaries for the sake of the artform.

He says that what he is seeking is not creators who "invent just to invent" but instead the ones that want to see their ideas spread wide. They want to see their software adding value, their designs delighting people, their clothes worn and their music danced to. This implies that these creators are not the ones that would tend to isolate themselves with their muse but instead creators who have a user-centric approach.

Quality also comes from hiring very dedicated people and then keeping them for a long time.

Putting aside hygiene factors like relationships, pay, company policies and work conditions; what these creatives need is what Christensen referred to as motivation factors (via More to That). I like to summarize those as:

  • Autonomy/Creativity
  • Mastery
  • Purpose/Impact

Unsurprisingly enough, these closely correlate to the 3 reasons creatives do what they do: self-expression, self-enrichment and connection.

Us PMs might think that keeping those creatives happy and motivated is primarily a responsibility the engineering or design managers but this couldn't be further from the truth. There are a lot of things us PMs can do to enhance all 3 motivation factors.

  • Autonomy/Creativity --> Don't micromanage; let them own their work as much as possible. Put just enough boundaries in order to allow for max creative freedom and time freedom (min deadlines and meetings).
  • Mastery --> Give them the space to experiment and grow as creatives. Give the opportunities to embark on differnt kinds of work.
  • Purpose --> Help them understand the why behind everything. Be an evangelist for a grand vision. Show them how their work has impact in the lives of people. Product Managers might be 'managers' but the best of us are actually leaders. Leaders inspire.

We spend countless hours studying and optimizing customer churn but employee churn is -usually- an afterthought. There are not many things out there that are as important as creating a workplace in which these craftsmen love working in - and not many things that are as hard-.

The company listens to focus groups with “one ear”

(Factoring user feedback into the creative process) is one mind-set, but it is not consistent with true creativity. Some companies are very marketing driven; they follow the consumer. But that approach has nothing to do with innovation, which is the ultimate driver, we believe, of growth and profitability.

I absolutely love this because I believe that we are grossly glorifying the effect that customer feedback and research should have on the product so excuse me if I go on a rant here.

Amazon's customer-obsession or the always-relevant-comment of: 'Listen to the customer' has been taken to such extreme that teams are driven simply by numbers instead of the desire to push the envelope, to offer something new to the world, to educate and to contribute to the cultural discussion.

Here are some typical pitfalls tech companies usually fall into when it comes to customer feedback and how we could tackle them:

PROBLEM 1: The customer is an expert of the problem but it is the team that is the expert of the solution. We need to learn to separate noice from signal and only listen for the first part; and take the later with a bucket of salt.

PROBLEM 2: Don't believe what people say, trust what people do. Don't ask them. See them in action. People don't know what they want. People don't even understand the motives and forces behind their decision making

PROBLEM 3: Take it one step further: read between the lines. Distill any user input to the core motivations & desires. That is all it boils down to.

PROBLEM 4: Are the people you are listening to really your target audience? Contrary to popular belief, product creators do have a conscious choice of who they would like to serve. They do not just put a product out there and try to please as many people as possible. The feedback is x10 valuable if it is coming from the type of people you are trying to serve and close to being an interference for anybody else. Be very critical of where the input is coming from. If you have been following Seth Godin or Superhuman you should be able to appreciate that if a potential customer is not happy with the product, the problem is not the product but the fact that you are talking to the  'wrong customer'.

We are NOT hired because we can run a feature factory. We are hired because we can see into the future, lead the way and hold the torch for others to follow.

When a creative team believes in a product, you have to trust the team’s gut instinct. That is the case with a perfume we launched this year: Flower, by Kenzo. We put it forward not because of the tests but because the team believed in it.

This is an especially brave move because the testing of Flower by Kenzo went terribly and yet they still believed and released it to the public.

This is putting intuition above data. This is equivalent to Apple ignoring people passionately complaining about them removing the headphone jack, only to catch them a few months later roam around boasting the latest AirPods playing it cool and retweeting every mention of the AirPod Pros.

In the art world, there are always people who won't like the work. Negative feedback is a fact of life. But we have a hard time accepting this fact in business. We have a hard time listening from customers that they don't like X or that they want Y. The customer is king.

We need to understand though that not all customer feedback is not created equally. Some people won't like the product because they are not the right audience for it. Others don't like it because they are naturally afraid of change. Whatever the reason; blindly basing our decision making on customer feedback will lead us astray.

  • Innovation will be stiffened
  • We will have 1000s that like you and nobody that loves you. We have 1000s marginally improved lives but none transformed.
  • If you please everybody, you stand for nothing. You have no essence, no signature, no point of view, no strong brand.

This might be perfectly acceptable for some companies but for the ones that have the craftsman attitude embedded in the culture; this is the point in which you will see the talent fleeing.

If out teams adopt the craftsman mindset, they will have no problem realising that not everybody will like your art. Not everybody should like your art. In fact there will be passionate lovers and passionate haters. And that is what will give the team the courage to de-emphasize the imprtance of customer research;  not because they do not respect their opinion but because sometimes it just doesn't matter.

You can’t charge a premium price for giving people what they expect, and you won’t ever have break-out products that way—the kinds of products that people line up around the block for.

Extraordinary products rarely result from examining customer preferences. Great products offer the familiar with a spin of novelty: The Most Acceptable Yet Acceptable (MAYA). Breakthrough products are the ones who are pushing the boundary just enough but not too much.

Bernard states that while listening to customers might work on the short term, if it is an infinite game that the company wants to play, then this approach will sooner or later not serve you since it stiffens the creative capacity of a company and before you know it, they get disrupted or left behind. So it is absolutely vital that we don't hinder innovation by following the but instead have the courage to pave our own way by taking any kind of user research or feedback with a pinch of salt and combining that with the creative input of the team.

The problem is that the quality of timelessness takes years to develop, even decades. You cannot just decree it. A brand has to pay its dues—it has to come to stand for something in the eyes of the world. But you can, as a manager, enhance timelessness—that is, create the impression of timelessness sooner rather than later. And you do that with uncompromising quality.

A strong brand takes time to mature but quality is one of the few things that can accelerate this process and product quality is the one thing that PMs can influence from their position. We should up the standards, pay attention to the details and enable the team to perform at its highest capacity.

A star brand is timeless, modern, fast growing, and highly profitable.
[...]
The hard truth is, you must be old and new at once. In a star brand you honor your past and invent your future at the same time. It is a subtle balance. If you have a star brand, then basically you can be sure you have mastered a paradox.

We rarely hear modern tech brands talk about the past. About heritage, tradition, history. You don't see 'since 1987' written anywhere. You don't see them talk about 'authenticity', lost techniques and traditional craftsmanship. While high fashion brands proudly celebrate their heritage, tech companies focus on the far far future.

Is it because technology is by definition concerned about inventing the future? I wish I had an answer... It perplexed me. But what is interesting is that according to Bernard's definition's of a star brand; in order to be timeless (in other words survive the test of time instead of go through the hype cycle) the brand has to have a characteristic past in addition to an ambitious future.

While tech companies have nailed the 'ambitious future' part of the equation through flashy vision decks and forward-thinking mission statements, it is rare to find tech companies that celebrate their 'characteristic past' nearly as much as their 'ambitious future'.

WeChat | Breaking the mould -too-

As I was getting ready to publish this article, this in-depth study of WeChat's success from HBR was published attributing WeChat's success to an approach of: Grand-design over design-thinking. This approach can be broken down into 3 principles (as phrased by HBR):

  1. Creating a work of art, not a commercial product.
  2. Responding selectively to users.
  3. Managing the process through top-down stewardship.

While the first 2 points are aligned to Bernaud's management style at LVMH, the last one is the complete opposite.

This means that not only they ignore customer feedback but the founder, Allen Zhang, even ignores employee feedback and limits creative freedom by taking ownership of the direction of the product, making decisions as low level as UI design.

This reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld, who in an interview stated: "If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

These will sound like an anathema to most tech folks out there but just the fact that something different than what we think is the 'best way' works so well, should make us rethink if there really is a right or wrong way to manage innovation. There are ways that work more than others depending on one's enviroment (managing haute couture designer divas is arguably not the same as engineers in China or designers in Stockholm).

While the views of Mr Zhang and Mr Arnaud and Mr Zhang might seem quite radical, they should offer a fresh perspective of seeing innovation management and maybe inspire us to break some rules.