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Do standards make any sense in a creative industry?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Do standards make any sense in a creative industry, such as code development?

If you see standards as a starting point, not an end point, they make sense in any industry – because they make personal sense.

In any professional situation, you can react as “yourself” (What do they want from me? What do I want from them? I’ll follow my instincts) or as a professional (What outcomes do we seek? What does this situation require? How do we handle this right?)

When we go at it as ourselves, the truth is we react habitually, as we’ve shaped ourselves to go through our experiences, likes and dislikes. For instance, as a writer, I don’t have a standard to respond to requests to write an article for a magazine, blog, etc. or speak at a conference. I – unfortunately – respond just as I am.

Here’s the trouble. I’m a writer, I love writing, so my answer is “yes” and then I sometimes find myself in trouble because of the deadline (I didn’t realize I had so much on my plate) or the publication itself (I didn’t catch what it was). Sometimes, you get lucky (such as this paper for Roguemag.org) and sometimes not.

Lean’s Dr. House

But part of the reason I love writing is that I hate speaking to people or meeting new people. They built the TV character Dr. House on my Myers Briggs personality profile. When I get invited to speak, my first response is to be very difficult, hoping the event organizer will drop the idea. I snow them under with demands and sound like such a diva.

To be honest, the statement “I hate talking to people” is an overstatement. Looking back at conferences I’ve keynoted, the experience was difficult but many times I’ve met very interesting people, visited new Gemba, had new discussions, or developed new ideas that fed deeper reflection and … further writing. There is a line of mental code that says “you hate public speaking” that is not wrong but is not true either.

If I had a standard, I could react much better to both cases. A paper? Sure! What kind of publication is it? Who is your target audience? What angle would grab them? What would you like me to talk about specifically? A keynote? Absolutely! In what context? Who attends this event? What are they looking for? What message do you think they need to hear?

Having a standard would help me focus on the need of the situation, not my needs in the situation – to forestall the first knee jerk reaction. Having a standard is a deliberate mental exercise that goes:

  1. Recognize the situation you’re in;
  2. Commit to start with the standard – to forestall the knee jerk reaction;
  3. Go through the standard sequence of steps;
  4. See where that gets you;
  5. Start thinking flexibly.

What you’ll find is that in parts of your job you know well, no matter how creative it is, you probably have a standard. In writing a paper, I’ll start with:

  • What is the frontline news – why is this worth talking about?
  • Where is the mystery – what will keep people reading it?
  • What is the argument – how will they follow what I have to say?
  • How can I illustrate this with stories – to make it more compelling?
  • What is the deeper theoretical point – the takeaway point?
  • What do I leave them with – to give the reader closure or cliffhanger?
  • What is the main mood of the piece? (as I read through it after writing)?

As you can see, this standard doesn’t stop me from being creative – I write the piece – but it starts me thinking the right way to be creative. And I have plenty of other standards about go/no-go zones in writing, checking, and so on. Which doesn’t mean I respect them. I often choose to ignore them. But I’m starting somewhere, as a professional.


To compare, my standards in preparing a keynote are much looser, to the point that they’re hardly standards at all. My starting point tends to be “who are they and what the hell do I tell them?”

That question sends me down a completely different thinking path. It’s about me, on stage, dealing with the audience’s expectations (aaaargh) and prior knowledge of the topic, and so on. It’s not about preparing the right talk.

Oh, sure I’m aware of this. I’ve read books about TED talks. Watched YouTube tutorials. But somehow can’t get my mind around it. Or the will to go there.

Standards are an endpoint. They’re the framework that allows you to see where you must improve.

The deeper point is that when I read about presenting, I don’t know what I’m reading. As a lifelong writer, I have a theory about writing: sensemaking, narrative structures, style and so on. I’m not necessarily any good at it, but when I read about writing, I know what the author is telling me. It makes sense. Or when it doesn’t I know how to be intrigued.

In keynoting, I’m just thinking habitually: I’m treating presentation as writing. I falling on my default and have never developed a theory of speech-making.

Which becomes self-reinforcing. When I get something wrong with a paper (say, I get attacked on the internet by someone I’ve cheesed off), I don’t particularly mind. I hear the comment in the light of my standards, and see where the divergence lies. It’s all part of the job. My ego is not (often) involved. Sure, some of our community trolls do get under my skin because of their particularly unpleasant way of saying things, but, hey, we’re all grown-ups. It’s cool. It’s professional.

With keynotes, things are much harder. Because it’s so hard, I get drained when I’m on stage. I’m too aggressive with the audience (Idiots! Why can’t you just read the book?). And I feel terrible when I get off stage, which is when I bite the head off of people who come up to me. Then conference organizers set up a special session with Important People – you can guess how that goes …

The point is I’m not there as a professional – I’m there as myself. I can’t take feedback, I can only be defensive. I can’t learn, I can only get experienced. Look at the waste this creates, without the development opportunity, because I have no standard standing between “me” and the situation.

Standards Liberate

Standards are the key to improvement, even in creative jobs. Standards allow you to:

  • See the situation professionally and start with a rational outlook of a sequence of marks you need to hit in order to complete the course.
  • Spot where you go wrong when you hit difficulties, what specific things you can work on to improve.
  • Understand more deeply the principles of what you do so that your habitual reaction is increasingly adaptive.

Standards are an endpoint. They’re the framework that allows you to see where you must improve. By starting with a standard, you get your own mind in the right place (and are aghast at all people who just wing it, their egos in full throttle), so that you can think about the creative aspects rather than simply struggle with the basics, as I do with keynoting.

And then you can ignore the standard and do something else, as I just did with this rant. Standards don’t imprison you or reduce your potential – they liberate you to be as good as you can be.

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