Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Question: What’s the model of an iconic project?
Alan Webber: Exactly. The metaphor I used in the rule about iconic projects is the metaphor of Zoysia grass and that may not be familiar to everybody or anybody except me but it makes perfect sense to me. Zoysia grass used to be a very popular way of creating a lawn in the ‘60s and ‘70s, maybe nobody does it anymore where you would take a plug and put it in your lawn and let it start growing and then you would take another plug, a certain distance away and plant another plug and the plugs will start growing together and pretty soon you populate the lawn with these plugs and they weave together a new carpet, in effect.
That’s the model of an iconic project, it’s a plug, it’s not planting the whole lawn, it’s doing something that plants the seed and let’s people show how you’re thinking about your project. It stands for the larger idea but because it’s kind of immediately graspable, people can see it, they can see that it works, they can see that it has creativity built into it or thoughtfulness built into it or pragmatism built into it and then they can grasp what you’re trying to do.
It is very much like starting small, it’s the idea that showcase your thinking in a way that other people can see it, once you’ve got that then you can begin to build off of it in the larger models or scale it or add elements to it. I’ll give you an example, years ago I worked the mayor of Portland, Oregon and Portland like many cities was suffering, it’s downtown was in real trouble, stores, shops are closing and the mayor went to Seattle to visit with the Nordstrom Family and went on a mission to have Nordstrom build a new store in downtown Portland, the good news was that there’d been an extremely comprehensive planning project to drew new ideas to what would revitalize downtown Portland, a transit mall, new parks, all kinds of really visionary things but it was all vision, there was nothing to look at.
So, the thought was go to Seattle, woo the Nordstrom Family, have them build the first new department store in downtown Portland in decades, they’d agreed to do it, they put in a department store, as soon as that investment was announced, the downtown plan went from being a visionary document to a real program for revitalizing downtown Portland. One iconic project was catalyzing influence, it suddenly made the ideas believable and you could point at it and say, “Look we’re not just making this up, these people are in the retail business, they’re investing real money in the department store, they’ve got to believe or they wouldn’t do it.”
That proves our theory, there will be reinvestment and revitalization in downtown Portland. That’s an iconic project. You can’t build the downtown project, the downtown plan doesn’t get built all at once but if you could point at something that makes it real, all of a sudden, people don’t think you’re just talking about change, you’re demonstrating what change looks like.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009