“Leading creative units to success” by Patrick Le Quément, Renault Design creator

Patrick le Quément is a world famous Car Designer. As SVP Renault Corporate Design, his team’s products have included brillant and bold designs such as Twingo, Mégane and Mégane II  Scénic; the Espace models of 1994 and 1998; Kangoo; Laguna models of 1994; Avantime and the Vel Satis of 2002.

Patrick is at the origin of Renault Design satellites, creative units spread over the world. He comes back to this adventure, and shares some personal experiences about assembling, managing, and moving creative units forward, in own genuine style. It’s like a story: let’s sit quietly and listen to this great leadership gift!

Hiring a creative team

Throughout the years that I have directed design organisations, be it as head of  Ford Design in Germany in the early eighties, or later within the Volkswagen-Audi Group and then for another 22 years when I was in charge of a large design team in France at Renault, I was faced with the endemic problem of how to maintain an organisation creative and at the peak of it’s form. The risk being to enter the danger zone of creative autarchy, or fulfilling the well known syndrome : «Whoever assembles, resembles…» meaning that if you assemble a talented team, which is a first step towards excellence, you nevertheless must watch over it  as if you were growing roses, don’t allow it to wane away.

Resisting collective domination by mastering partial destructuration…

Of course it all begins with the quality of those that you hire on the one hand, and how  you develop those that may have been within the team for many years.

So what are the criteria that I have assembled over the years in the hiring of my design staff ? They are what I have called: The 4+1 Qualities, the questions I ask myself whenever I face a potential candidate to hire :

1/ A creative passion

Is the person absolutely  impassioned by the act of creation, curious, open, refuses to accept paradigms, is prepared to burn the midnight oil to progress?

2/ Mastering drawing

Does the person have exceptional drawing ability in order to liberate the links between the brain and the hand. Matisse once said : « Drawing is to make an idea more precise. A drawing is the precision of the mind».

3/ Ability to work with others

Will the person be a good team member ? More than ever, as Enzo Ferrari said:   «Teamwork has replaced the solitary genius».

4/ Having empathy

Does the person demonstrate the capacity of putting his/herself in someone else’s shoes? does he/she design for others?

5/ Talent

And of course talent, you may answer all other 4 criteria but, if your talent is not at the highest level, then meeting all the other criteria will not help you.

Personal projects

It all began when I worked in Ford in Germany in the early 80’s, our team was small and the number of projects were subject to numerous stops and go. I realised that our Design staff was under utilised and inclined to find fictional projects to fill in the gaps.

One morning I walked into the studio to find a designer quickly closing his sketch pad just before I reached his desk, I asked him to show me what he was doing, and was much impressed by what I saw : he was designing a vehicle that clearly was not part of our official programs, it was an ingenious modular design which instantly got me thinking that, once again «Innovations are often the result of a successful disobedience».

Instead of allowing the designer to hide his guilty project, I asked him to put it up on the wall and that I would come back later to review it. This I did together with some of my managers, and that’s how an illicit operation became an officially approved creative outlet, much prized by the designers, and the subject of an extraordinary display of creativity. We called it Private Projects.

When I later joined Renault, my design staff was far larger than the one in Ford of Germany, it was still to grow larger, designers alone reaching 140 within the different facilities around the world. Right after my arrival, I instituted Personal Projects within Renault Design, establishing that each designer could spend up to 15% of his/her time to the pursuit of a personal project, that had to be first submitted and approved by our management committee which established the project follow up.

We pursued this plan for several years with a few resounding successes, many new programs were instigated as a result of a personal project but, as is the case with all programs, a time comes when habits and routine poke their ugly heads, new projects are not so new anymore (what we called the Usual Suspects), and thus we elected to abolish them to pursue a new initiative, the creation of a network of design satellite studios.

Satellite Design Studios

The year 2000 being almost over, Renault Design was close to entering it’s Third Phase of Design, each phase turned out to have lasted  a non-calculated seven years. The First began in 1988, it had for a rallying point the search for conceptual innovations that had marked Renault after the Second World War, with such models as the Renault 4, the first production hatch in history, or later the R 16 featuring a polyvalent interior on an upper segment vehicle. Our most notable offspring being the Twingo and the Scénic concept. The second phase of Renault design began in 1995 and was related to developing our own unmistakable identity.

2001 marked the beginning of the Third Phase, a search for greater appeal and furthering our international ambitions. But Renault Design needed a stimulus, and what more, it had to come from outside to be noticed, to be accepted within.

It was to come through the creation of a network of satellite studios that Renault Design regenerated itself and entered into it’s Third Phase. It began with the opening of a studio in downtown Barcelona, then a little later in the Bastille area of Paris, followed  by the acquisition of the former Samsung Motors design centre in Korea, then opening a studio in the former Swiss embassy in Bucarest.  Mumbai in India was our next port of call, and finally we saw the opening with too many armed bodyguards in Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The satellite design studios were run so as to offer, at first, counter proposals to the Central Design Centre, a role which our Barcelona studio, under the leadership of Thiérry Metroz, successfully covered. In the first three years, they lived as an independent team, whose work was NOT to be seen by the designers based in other facilities. In fact their work could only be viewed just a few days before a senior management review when their projects were being presented in our headquarters in France, namely just before a design selection.

This enabled the satellite teams to blossom individually outside a potentially suffocating design in-house heritage. It also enabled them to develop their own strong individual characteristics, whilst remaining within the dotted lines of our culture, thanks to the monthly visits I was paying them.

Satellite design centres also had to assure a presence and a means of better understanding the markets where  the company had decided to concentrate their commercial strategy for the next decade. Being the design eyes of the company in places as far apart as Seoul or Mumbai, did not mean that the team were staffed only with nationals of that country, on the contrary, we made the point to gather international teams, with various backgrounds, as a principle, as I have often noticed how foreigners are able to ask the right question, or the wrong question being more appropriate, and proceed to ask the 5 why’s, the 5 questions which leads you to the real answer.

They were empowered to nurture and develop unique projects which had been approved following their proposals during one of my regular visits, and they were often given missions to illustrate a design initiative, away from the eyes of corporate wisdom.

This is indeed how the Dacia Sandero was born, a secret proposal, based upon a conviction that a totally different alternative was necessary and that, what had been officially approved was probably born out of common sense, but surely devoid of any form of magic. It took senior management by storm, despite the strong protests of the programme director who felt we were breaking the rules, as well as an heftier investment being required, but as the head of marketing expressed : «This one we can sell like hot cookies!», and did they just that!!!

In order to overcome the growing communication difficulties that seem to plague most new Design studio located within a few hours plane flight, we elected that each new studio would report to one of the members of the Comex (Design Executive Committee), thus creating an active champion to support and maintain communication lines between HQ and the satellite. It also helped to break down the barriers between the famous (or is it infamous?) silos and allow, for example, the Director of Interior Design to overview the satellite Centre in Sao Paulo which had both exterior and interior design activities.

As time went by, we elected to eradicate the hierarchy between central and satellites by encouraging inter-satellite communications, eliminating the woes attached to centralisation, thus the running of programs were in many cases run by 2 or 3 satellites in the exploratory stages, thanks to the emergence of more autonomous design project managers.

The Open Organisation

An open organisation can be so called when it’s members are not dominated by an oppressive company culture that stifles reflexion, introduces auto censorship and softens the minds. Of course, an in house Design Group has the responsibility to help determine the company’s design strategy, but it should always watch out for the fat cat syndrome, the «I know better» reply, the «We’ve always done it that way», the «This is not us» before having taken a big breath, the «Look here young fellow», the «Well that’s the way we do it in this company», the «It will never work», as lo and behold it may work very well indeed!…

An open organisation is made up of people who do not come out of the same mould. Avoid those that are experts because they say so, those to whom one says : «He knows everything and nothing else». Hire those that can draw outside the margins of the virtual sketch pad, hire people who are better than you, BETTER THAN YOU, there are hundreds out there, open your net and go and find them away from the beaten path.

We hired 50% of our designers outside of our natural frontiers, they came from 28 different countries, from Europe to the Americas, from Russia to Mongolia, Korea, Senegal and even Scotland (kilt and all!), what a terrific way to avoid indulging in superficial nationalism. The studios anywhere in Renault Design were ALIVE.

The Management’s role is decisive, there a management culture is a must in order to maintain a homogeneous, stabilising environment. This requires a thoroughly rigorous approach, the establishment of DO’s and DONT’s that are understood, shared and respected by all. An example in point being the relationship that exists between the Boss and the designer… first thing first, it has to be recognised that the skills required to run successfully a family Mum and Pop grocery shop is different to running a superette, even more so different a supermarket, and it goes without saying a gigantic hyper market.

One of the rules that has to be respected is: NEVER ignore the chain of command. Oh sure, make that as short as possible. Ours in Renault Design was 3 levels (to increase later to 4), between a designer and the CEO, knowing of course, that as the Design Senior Vice President I answered directly to the top of the pyramid. It is the death of an organisation when the head of Design ignores the management structure and deals directly with the Gamba. To avoid the temptation and nevertheless be present where the creation is happening,  it’s important to continue with your management by walking around, but making sure each time that the  local manager is present.

If I have defended a homogeneous, stabilising environment I also promoted the regular or irregular input of disruptive challenges, like the introduction of musical chairs for designers, thus changing to a new studio at the end of a programme in order to offer a new «start all over again experience», or going on an assignment abroad, which is the best way for waking up the lethargic creative juices, the same approach was also applicable to management, the participations to numerous «quick projects», any exercise which helped our designers to view the world somewhat differently, namely by asking them, figuratively speaking, to stop for a while drawing the objects in front of them and start drawing the shape between the objects. (An exercise that my old Bauhaus Professor, Naum Slutzky, had taught me).

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also gives life to creativity. With time, habits form, rituals take over, people doze off gently without realising the toxic effect the gentle life has on their creativity… and so new stimuli must be brought forth to collide with routine. This we did through the introduction of a series of brilliant speakers, that took us across history,  to better understand people, and the rise and fall of industrial empires.

We also launched a series of participation in projects carried out with companies totally outside our comfort zone, or on the contrary within zones of blissful yet challenging proximity. We designed watches for a prestigious watch maker, motorbikes all red and flamboyant, luggages for the fortunate and many other emblematic projects.

But the dawning came when I was talking to a group of designers, I was totally taken back how much they knew about the automotive world and how little they knew about the world of design at large. Their antennas were turned inward and not outward. One exception existed within the designer community, and that concerned the specificity of Colour & Trim designers. Why was that? I asked my close circle. Well, automotive designers are said to have gasoline in their blood, their interest for the mechanical horse is overpowering to the point of numbing interest in all else, poisoning their blood? Colour & trim designers are mostly women but not always, and yet this is not a question of gender, the answer it seemed was more related to an absence of an exclusive obsession for the automobile, and a broader interest in all things that make life so exciting for a creative personality.

Interestingly, Colour & Trim designers visited each year the Milan show and they convinced me to join them that year, accompanied by a couple of my closest staff. This was the start of what turned out to be a major move for us, a sort of cultural  transmission we decided to call Missions Tendances. Trend Missions.

Trend Missions

This programme began in the year 2000, it had for an objective to take a group of seven designers, to the Milan Furniture show, accompanied by a small dedicated team who had for a mission to take them around, and open their eyes to the world of design.

The mission was meticulously prepared, it included organising the meeting of a well known figure of the design world, as well as the preparation briefing with the group of designers and advising them on what to read before leaving. The visit took place on a three day adventure, it was filmed, including the debriefing before leaving Milan where they were all encouraged to air their points of view. We reviewed the film as quickly as editing permitted, and talked to the enthusiastic lucky few who had experienced the event. The result was so convincing that, not only did we decide to make a presentation to the whole of the design staff that year, but we experimented with sending a copy of the video to a selected happy few, including the President.

The feed-back was so positive that we began almost immediately to increase the number of missions to 4 a year, one of which, Milan, remained year after year on the agenda. We thus visited  some of the most fascinating cities in the world, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Seoul, as well as, nearer to home London, all the Scandinavian capitals, Berlin, Barcelona and Madrid, each time coming back with our films and making a light but telling presentation to those who had not been fortunate to participate. The influence on our designers  was quite noticeable, their eyes were literally widened by a new vision, they began to document seriously their proposals looking from the inside out, the influence of the outside world was there for all to see.

Probably the most memorable event took place in 2007 when we organised a Renault World wide Design Presentation that assembled all our designers, plus guests from «friendly companies» like Decathlon, Louis Vuitton and many others.. as well as senior and not so senior Renault personnel, whose attendance was strategic to the open mind world wide approach that we were promoting. The President gave the closing speech.

An enlightened sponsor for creativity, and tangibles results

Being more open, being curious, having more empathy, developing a critical approach, learning from others, how could Renault Design have been allowed to enjoy such a continuous experiment without the protection of a Prince, in the person of President Louis Schweitzer, probably the greatest leader that Renault has ever had, a humanist, a visionary manager, the man who privatised the company, who forged the link with Nissan, who imagined the low cost potential of the Logan, alone and against the greater majority of the Engineering community, who acquired  Dacia and the bankrupt Samsung Motors, the man who believed in the power of Design, who was fascinated by it, who was forever asking me questions about what we had finally decided to call «The Black Box», that mysterious phenomena called creativity.

As designers we knew that this trust required us to outperform the performers within the company, and Renault Design was almost always cited when the word efficiency was put on the table. Probably the most important drive for performance came about in our search for a radical change of our development process through the drastic reduction of physical models and the development of an intensive digital process called G3D for Global Digital Design Development. The breakthrough came about when we invented a way of calculating short films in which our new proposals were injected, with a turn around time of 3 hours, versus the normal 4 weeks that was looked upon as a good performance at that time within the automotive world.

The results were there for every one to see :

1- Design staff were able to tackle 3 times more projects than before.

2- Lead-time was reduced by a further 20 weeks.

3- Design development cost were cut by 51%.

Epilogue

Design is about change, NO change = NO progress. This reminds me of that memorable dialogue between Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster in Luchino Visconte’s film THE LEOPARD, from that exceptional book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa : «So that nothing changes, everything needs to be changed».

« Si nous voulons que tout reste tel que c’est, il faut que tout change » (Le Guépard)

“To innovate is to change while remaining yourself” (Marc Giget)

Perpetual change…

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4 responses to ““Leading creative units to success” by Patrick Le Quément, Renault Design creator

  1. Interesting enough there is no single item here which has not been considered in the Nokia culture I experienced. These are all good and fairly classical design management practices. What’s not answered here is the super tricky question of industry optimisation often in the form of platforms which when ending are extremely difficult to transit from toward a new paradigm. Symbian got maintained too long, while the expansion speed of the high-end smartphone market has been beyond any prediction. The car industry is facing a change as well, and the organisation of it from an own/status symbol explosion engine to an electric utility one is beyong technical and logistics, it’s a meaning change, which a chain of unintended consequences which are never predicted correctly. Renault design had scenarios and other car manufacturers for mobility services designed way ahead of their time, but probably also very date now, as the very experience of mobility services would be integrated and influenced by other phenomenons. It seems the talk here is very much about keeping refreshing an organisation in a mature market.

  2. Patrick le Quément

    I did not quite know what to make of the comments made my Rémy Bourganel, I’m delighted to hear that Nokia did all of those things as well, that seems to me very stimulating to know that others shared the same vision and engaged similar approaches, makes you feel good to read that. In 2007, on September 17, I had the experience to meet Steve Jobs who came to Paris, and amongst other things he visited us in our Paris Studio to discuss our approach of managing a creative team. I think he enjoyed the conversation, he certainly asked a lot of questions and so did I

    Where I do not follow Remy Bourganel’s point is related to his comment : ” It seems the talk here is very much about keeping refreshing an organisation in a mature market.” Absolutely right, that is indeed the periphery of my contribution and nothing else. My subject WAS NOT to address : “What’s not answered here is the super tricky question of industry optimisation often in the form of platforms which when ending are extremely difficult to transit from toward a new paradigm. Symbian got maintained too long, while the expansion speed of the high-end smartphone market has been beyond any prediction. The car industry is facing….” Maybe next time!!

  3. Pingback: My ‘fantastic four’ of innovation leadership | Rapid innovation in digital time

  4. Pingback: Coding a Nifty Innovation Unit | Rapid innovation in digital time

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