LA JOLLA, Calif. - Ask Jerry Hirshberg about creativity, and he'll tell you it's something that just happens. Don't try to package it or institutionalize it. It just happens, he advises.
Companies that form 'creativity teams' and tell employees, 'You go be creative now,' are often the most conservative and least likely to make breakthroughs, he says.
At Nissan Design International, Hirshberg has tried to find that perfect edge between free-form thinking and institutional chaos. Staff meetings ramble without overt direction from the boss. Boot-licking is strictly forbidden, disagreement expected. Meetings are allowed, indeed encouraged, to fail.
'You can't legislate creativity. Some of our best stuff isn't even noticed at the time it happens,' Hirsh-berg says.
'We just let the music happen, with all of its cacophony, happy accidents, failures and misspoken sentences. I feel comfortable with this ambivalence and disorder.'
I was given access to one such meeting - with the proviso that any technical or product-planning details would not be published -to see Nissan Design International's creative process in action.
Although the design studio staff on this October morning has just finished the task of cranking out six concept or production-ready vehicles, they must now turn their attention to creating the next Pathfinder sport-utility.
At this, the first meeting before any pencil touches paper, there is very little structure. There's no talk of 'This is what the next Pathfinder should be.' In fact, it's just the opposite.
Despite the expected banter about positioning, packaging, platforms and pricing, it quickly becomes clear that no written mission statement is going to guide this meeting.
Instead, the session revolves around broad-brush questions:
Has the current, 'softer' Path-finder diluted the previously masculine image?
Will the upcoming trucklike Xterra and the success of the car-like Lexus RX 300 mean the next Pathfinder should stay soft?
Should it be like a tall wagon or more like a Dodge Durango with three rows of seats?
Have sport-utilities become de facto minivan replacements?
Should Nissan shop for ideas at ski resorts, garden centers or soccer fields?
This definitely does not feel like a meeting with the boss. People talk over one another, firing off ideas and comments, yet there is mutual respect all around.
One young designer brutally hammers a Hirshberg idea about creating 'an affordable Mercedes' with the retort, 'The Mercedes already is affordable.' No one even blinks at what would be considered insubordination at most companies.
Many meetings are halted just before an inspirational 'Eureka!' moment so thoughts can be savored, digested. This meeting clearly is making progress down the right track, but the clock hits 11: 30, and the meeting comes to a halt.
It's time to play sand volleyball. After all, there has to be some structure in an organization.