Main story: The Wow Project
More: The Proto Project
The art of creating a Wow Project involves four key stages and a multiplicity of tasks, tactics, and tricks. To help you in your efforts to create a Wow Project, we've identified three people, each of whom epitomizes a key aspect of the new world of project work. Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, teaches a central lesson about the art of Wow Projects: Every project is an exercise in community organizing. For Canada, community organizing isn't a metaphor — it's his life. Working in Central Harlem in New York City, Canada's project work consists of marshaling resources to help poor families and children, and of energizing that community to help itself. Irene Etzkorn's projects offer a critical corollary to Canada's work: Any project can be transformed into a Wow Project — if you inject it with the right energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. From her position as executive vice president at Siegel & Gale Inc., Etzkorn often executes projects that others might dismiss as boring: redesigning everyday office forms, for example. But, by looking at the "project behind the project," Etzkorn and her colleagues take the seemingly mundane and transform it into the compellingly Wow. Finally, Rick Smolan leads a production company, Against All Odds Inc., which tackles enormous photographic projects on a global scale. Smolan's projects are massive, complex, challenging — and invariably rewarding. They serve as an important reminder that the first test of a Wow Project is, Is it worth doing?
No Trivial Projects
For Geoffrey Canada, 47, the notion of "life in the projects" isn't a metaphor. Canada grew up poor in the South Bronx, left home to attend Bowdoin College and Harvard University, and, in 1990, returned to New York, where he later became CEO of Rheedlen Centers, an organization that brings opportunity and hope to residents of Central Harlem. In 1994, Canada received the prestigious Heinz Award for his work on behalf of poor families and young children — a $250,000 prize that recognized him as a leader of social change. Also in 1994, he published a book, Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (Beacon Press), that chronicles the despair and violence that he saw while growing up. Today Canada devotes his energy to eradicating that kind of despair and violence.
What can a community activist teach an advertising executive, a software engineer, a management consultant, or a manufacturing manager about the world of projects? According to Canada, the work of community organizing and the work of business have a great deal in common: Success in both depends on passion and vision — and on your ability to communicate your purpose to others. Here are Canada's strategies for gaining support and loyalty for any project.
Admit that you have ulterior motives. Before people will believe in you and in what you have to say, you must overcome their cynicism. In my work, I deal with underprivileged people who have seen plenty of programs come and go, leaving behind unfulfilled promises. So, naturally, there's a lot of suspicion. Why should anyone believe that you and your ideas will be any different?
You have to put your interests on the table. Say what it is that you're getting out of the project. And it can't be about your being great and wonderful — that's not a sufficient reason for you to commit the amount of time and energy that it takes to make a project work. Doing a project is not about being a nice person.
We're very clear with people about what we're doing: We will help you, but we're doing it because we're on a mission. We hope that you'll succeed, and that America will notice. People will realize that if you can do it, so can people in Chicago or Detroit or Flint, Michigan. We get folks to see that they're involved in groundbreaking, exciting work. We want them to see themselves as partners with us and with each other. Then it's not about what we'll do to or for them. It's about what we can achieve together.
Listen — don't debate. It's almost impossible to change someone's mind through confrontation. It makes far more sense to listen to your opponents and to let them develop their arguments fully. That's hard. Typically we listen to the first half of an opposing idea, and then we rebut it. The result: Our opponents feel antagonized. They turn us off, and we never get to address the other half of their thinking.
I try to keep asking questions. Learning is the only way that you'll discover what might move your opponents away from their position and toward yours. By asking questions, you create an opening to explain how your project is different from what they think it is, or why you're approaching your project in a particular way.
Stop sorting by category. Because of my work and because I'm an African-American, people make certain assumptions about who I am. I actually tend to be more conservative about social issues than many folks think I am. The same thing goes on in the workplace. Someone is an accountant — so people assume that he'll do things by the book, that he's not interested in being creative, that he'll never understand a project that involves emotions. People tend to lump other people into categories: color, job title, gender. We're all more complicated than that. If you ascribe beliefs to people based on a category, you won't be able to change their minds. More important, you'll miss out on meeting some of your greatest potential allies.
Coordinates: Geoffrey Canada, Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, 212-866-0700
No Boring Projects
According to Irene Etzkorn, executive vice president of Siegel & Gale Inc., a communications and branding consulting firm, there is no such thing as a boring project: There are only boring executions. Etzkorn, 39, heads up the New York-based company's Simplified Communications division, which specializes in taking the mundane and making it Wow. A classic example: In 1990, IBM Canada asked Siegel & Gale to redesign an agreement form that it used with customers who were buying or leasing IBM printers. The existing form was a rambling mess of typewritten legalese — an odd look for a document intended to close deals on high-speed laser printers.
The first thing that people on Etzkorn's team did was to redesign the project: To them, the project wasn't about cleaning up an ugly form. It was about rethinking IBM's relationship with its customers. The form that Siegel & Gale ultimately designed was an elegant time line that clearly stated the obligations of both IBM and its customers. The form was so easy to understand that clients could sign it without sending it to their legal departments — so sales closed faster. Even better, it supported IBM's image as a high-tech, customer-focused company. Here is Etzkorn's advice on how you can turn what looks like a tedious assignment into a Wow Project.
Start with a clean slate. A project isn't always what the client thinks it is. Often clients approach us with a project that deals only with the surface result of the real problem. With IBM, for instance, the surface problem was a poorly designed form. The real problem was that information was buried in the contract that could make that form a customer-friendly reflection of IBM's brand.
Set outrageous goals. The IBM executives knew that the form was bad. What they didn't know was that they were actually losing sales, because the form was so discouraging for customers to use. Our team aimed to boost IBM's sales by redesigning a form. That was an audacious thing for us to try — but we did it.
Wider is better. Don't assume that a project's reach is limited to one department. Cast a wide net, and bring in players with different perspectives. When we were rethinking the form, we pulled people together from IBM's marketing department and from its accounting department — people who didn't typically cross paths. It had simply never occurred to the lawyers and the accountants that something they did could affect brand image.
Coordinates: Irene Etzkorn, email@example.com
No Small Projects
Rick Smolan, 49, specializes in Wow Projects. As the creator of the "Day in the Life" photography-book series, Smolan has racked up an unparalleled streak of successes with his complex, sprawling projects. A former photographer for Time, Life, and National Geographic, Smolan has developed a standard operating procedure for his projects (which cost an average of $5 million to produce): Hire researchers to spend three months sniffing out good stories. Fly 100 of the best photographers in the world to 100 different locations. Shoot for one day. Then pare down a pool of 150,000 photos to create a collection that turns into a coffee-table book, a CD-ROM, and a Web site — as well as a documentary and a museum exhibit or two. His company, Against All Odds Inc., tackles seemingly unphotographable topics and transforms them into stunning slices of history. Here are some of Smolan's strategies for handling large, seemingly unmanageable projects.
If people like your idea, kill it. If you pitch your project and everybody says, "What a great idea," it's usually too late to do that project. People are always approaching me to do a version of the project that I just finished. Publishers want a sure thing. They want to buy Amazon.com stock today, even though it doubled yesterday. What they don't want to do is find the next Amazon.com. So you need to trust your own judgment — and that's always hard. People think that because I've been doing these books for 18 years, I must be pretty confident about my ideas. But I'm always scared. I talk to the heads of Random House, and they say, "This is a terrible idea." My first thought is always "Well, gosh, this is a billion-dollar company, and who am I?" But there is a perverse pleasure in having everybody say, "This is never going to work" — and then pulling it off anyway.
Recruit great people — then fire them. A big project is nothing more than a series of smaller projects strung together. You have to give each phase the right amount of attention, planning, and — most important — people. Our projects have peaks of activity as well as lulls. At the beginning, there's a small team of people who do the fund-raising. Then there's a big team of researchers; then a huge team of photographers; then a small team of picture editors. Right now, for example, we have 3 people. Two years ago, we had 35 people. It's hard to find good people, but it's even harder to let them go. Everybody becomes like a member of your family. But it's a bad idea to keep people around when you don't need them. You'll bore them, and the overhead will kill you. Give great people a chance to do what they do best — and then get out of their way.
Plan to be spontaneous. As a freelance photographer, I was often frustrated by editors who would see only what they were looking for. Anything unexpected would land on the cutting-room floor. To me, the unexpected is what's interesting. So I purposely create room for that in my projects.
That doesn't mean that we hire 100 photographers just to wander around, aimlessly taking snapshots. We spend months coming up with assignments that have the potential to generate great photographs. But our hope is that, when the photographers get out in the field, they will throw out their assignment and come up with something that's 10 times better — because they're there on the spot.
Coordinates: Rick Smolan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl Dahle (email@example.com) is a Fast company senior writer whose projects are never trivial, boring, or small.
A version of this article appeared in the May 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.