Management Tips

What defines a REAL Differentiator in your work?

I recently heard a notion posed that went something like this,

“Ideas should not be bound by time thereby the value of ideas should not be defined by the time it took to generate them.”


Considering a fixed deadline, likely common to all arts based professional industries, if an idea is generated in an instant is it worth less than if it took days, weeks or even months to conceive? How do you place value on that and how do you define whether that idea is the best for the solution? It goes back to asking, “How can you be creative within the limits of your project?” Can creativity be defined as “the ability to generate ideas within the parameters of your assignment or project” whatever those perameters may be (time, size, budget, etc)?

Does Blink challenge this notion?

In Blink, where one, among the many premises in the book, is that snap decisions or ideas formed in an instant are as true and succinct (maybe even more) than those that take time, nurturing, rework and refinement. First instincts are it! No further thinking is required; only refinement. When considering the arts industry, that theory plays well into the world of fixed fees but the antithesis, the theory of less time = less creative purported by certain industries, is still a strong argument against the former. Not all industries are on fixed on budgets and timelines; the advertising and legal professions for example. Sometimes it takes what it takes, they say. Sure, there are limits but in these cases talent becomes the overriding competitive advantage. These industries are, however, now starting to be challenged to work within the confines of fixed cost. This changes the game for them but reinforces that talent is a driving factor to generating value. The value of talent over the fixed fee has been the golden goose in the Architecture and Design industry, where clients have historically chose to fix the limits of the creative process, as a standard to define its value. Considering we all have clients and we all have deadlines the only real differentiator left, as in the advertizing or legal model, is the resources used to find the solution.

How do we get what we need from that talent?

Do you feel that sometimes when you are totally in a zone and completely relaxed the ideas just come to you? The flow is quick and easy. Does the same happen under pressure? When pressured we can certainly perform, we have to but the question remains; is that our best work? What defines a truly brilliant idea over a good idea? What are the differences between having an idea that works and one that changes how you do things or see things or what we call truly innovative? Or should the question be “Does it really matter?” One person’s brilliance is another person’s “good enough” or more famously one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. It’s subjective and based on need therefore can we say that creativity is borne from process? Of course, there are still ideas that are crap and regardless of whether it’s one man’s treasure or not we can all recognize crap when we see it. Let’s look at it this way though. Routine is a basic human trait and even the most creative of our ilk still have process. The process we go through to generate ideas; stress or no stress. It’s the process that becomes the creative solution and the process that generates the opportunity to discover great ideas. We need to recognize it, understand it, elevate it and nurture it so that it grows and evolves.

So what? Process or not we are all still the same, right?

Well, maybe not. Creative process, regardless of its importance to generating great ideas, is not necessarily a differentiator. It doesn’t set you, your firm or your industry apart from any other and it can’t buy you clients no matter how it’s presented. Every firm dresses up their creative process to try to be different but it always ends up being the same, in many ways, even though the packaging appears different. What’s the real difference though? The real difference is what you were reading about in the previous paragraphs; talent. People. People are the only differentiator. One principal, one director, one designer is nowhere near like the other. By the sheer nature of personality the difference between skill sets is practically irrelevant. Skills can be taught, personality cannot. Simple. Take a look around. When we focus on selling talent as the unique factor of why we do what we do, whatever the industry, then we can truly demonstrate our differentiators. Legal firms get it. The top talent makes it to the nameplate and for good reason.

Now what?

We all know the lowest common denominator is always the low bid. The low bid will get your client exactly what they are asking for. Let’s break the cycle together. Let’s demonstrate our talent, let’s nurture it, let’s tell everyone about it and lets offer the best so that our client’s get the best. The deserve it. When they see the difference they will understand and if they don’t then they can go somewhere else and get what they pay for. I know, I know, if it was only that easy.

We have to start somewhere so…….

Don’t hate the player, don’t hate the game. Elevate the player, win the game.


About rdopping

interior design guy who loves other stuff; social media, photography, film, food and anything that is good for the growth of the self


4 thoughts on “What defines a REAL Differentiator in your work?

  1. Great discussion Ralph. You really have hit the nail on the head, defining the differentiator. Some could rightly argue that one position oneself relative to your market but that works only as long as that market is (1) yours to compete in and (2) somewhere you are comfortable being pigeon-holed in. This is both the definer and limiter of many design firms: “I always thought of them as a _____firm, why on earth would I bring a _______ type job to them. The go-to guys are_____ and that’s where we are taking our business.” Recognizing and positioning talent certainly helps a firm position themselves in numerous markets, possibly creating a limitless differentiator.

    Posted by Paul | January 13, 2012, 10:09
    • Thanks Paul, you make a good point that I really didn’t consider. When you think about it if you limit your ability to grow good talent you limit what you can produce thereby limiting the ability to be the go to guys. The buck starts and stops with the people who make up the teams and in my mind process is somehwat secondary. Being a trusted partner is likely more important to a client than how you got there. I have to meet a client who really cares how the internal process flows as long as you meet your agreed critical path and milestones. Great discussion.

      Posted by rdopping | January 14, 2012, 12:27
  2. LOL…Paul beat me to a comment! Ralph, seriously….we’re from the same soul group…I’m reading Blink right now, loaned to me by Jim. And another post from you that I am in sync with. I always always believe that a client knows how much you want a job, and am in fact opposed to templates because each project/idea deserves its own design. But we create templates because we think it’s economical; when what you’ve really done is killed the spirit it could have had to change one’s perspective. I could comment really, on every line you’ve written.

    I’ve accepted your last paragraph as my mission. And not so ironic, I was very generally talking to Paul about how we can express/teach the fundamentals (principles/elements) of design in a simple way that would help the client/end user understand how it’s a tool waiting to be exploited, not boxed in.

    Thanks for the read.

    Posted by Karen | January 13, 2012, 12:46
    • Karen, always inspiring to hear from people who appreciate your writing. The mission of thissite is to open dialogue about the arts and culture to learn and grow from our experiences. Looks like you are well on your way and I thank you for participating, adding value and being interesting. We can only benefit form this type of interaction.

      Posted by rdopping | January 14, 2012, 12:22

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