Factory vs. Studio

Start conditions matter! Figure out what blend of creativity and efficiency you need

From 2006 to 2014, I taught at Stanford University. This is the story of one of the activities I used in the classroom. The activity is called Factory vs. Studio. It’s a live simulation in the classroom that helps students understand the importance of start conditions when they’re managing a team.

Here’s how it works. First you pick four people to work in the Factory and four other people to work in something called the creative Studio. They each get the same exact assignment: produce a children’s book for kids aged 3 to 7. The story has to have commercial appeal and merchandising potential.

Everyone else in the class who wasn’t picked for the Factory or the Studio, they act as spectators who get to watch and talk about what they see happening. Once you’ve picked the groups, you need to setup the Factory just a little bit more.

Take those Factory people and assign them specific jobs. Make one of them the Factory Boss and the others can be the heads of the story department, the art department, and the editing department. Put the Factory people at separate desks with chairs and label each desk for each job. Line those desks up in a row and separate them a bit so it looks and feels like an assembly line. You can also put white printer paper and black Sharpies on their desks. Ask the Factory people to go to their stations and say the following words to them: “Efficiency, production, industrial revolution, division of labor,” then tell the Factory team to get to work.

Now go to the Studio team. Put them as far away from the Factory as you can; a separate room is ideal. Dump a pile of markers and colored paper, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, tin foil, googly eyes on the floor. It should look like a kindergarten arts and crafts class exploded all over the room. The only words you say to the Studio team are these, “Joy! Play! Create! Fun!” You have to say those with a smile on your face and with a lot of feeling.

I’ve done this activity now dozens of times in different countries with vastly different participants. Every time, more or less, I see the same thing. The Factory team sits in their stations. They rarely talk to each other and the boss walks the line. The book they’re producing makes its way from the story-writing department to the art department, to editing, page by page by page. There’s steady progress, but pretty low energy.

Ask the spectator group (i.e. the folks that are not in the Factory or the Studio) the following questions: “What do you think it feels like to work here? What do you like about this Factory? What worries you?” They will notice the orderly, steady progress, but that the Factory group’s output is creatively blah. That’s what you’re going to see and hear in the Factory. And all you did to get these people to behave this way was provide some rough clues with a few words and a little bit of furniture.

It’s incredible and honestly, a little disturbing how easily you can access this approach to work. It’s just under the surface for most people. If you really want to be creeped out, put some tape on the floor to mark out their work areas at each desk. You never have to tell them not to leave the space. They stand there inside their tape boxes.

Now switch over to the Studio. In the most common case, there is shit everywhere and they’re all talking at once. They’re playing with the materials. They don’t seem to get much actual work done though. Their volume is probably pretty loud too. There may or may not even be a clear leader in the discussion.

Go back to the spectator group and ask them the same questions as before, “What do you think it feels like to work here? What do you like about the Studio? What worries you about the Studio?” They’ll notice the happy, energetic, creative, even wacky ideas, but they wonder if the Studio group is actually going to make anything. That’s what you’re going to see and hear in the Studio. Remember, all you did to get these people to behave this way was provide rough clues with a few words and some art supplies. Again, it is crazy how easy it is to tap into this method of working.

At the end, the Factory people read their story out to the crowd. It’s usually pretty derivative and a little boring, but it’s done and packaged up exactly to spec. It’s got mass market appeal. It’s got merchandising potential. It’s got a beginning, middle, and end to the story. The story is almost always told by one person, while the other ones stand around and don’t speak at all. 80% of the time, someone will openly complain about the working conditions, totally unprompted.

Next up, the Studio team reads their book to the crowd. They always have a more clever, compelling, and original story, but their final product is rarely finished in any sense of the word. They are talking over each other, going off on tangents in their presentation. The book, physically, is a mess, but the story is really special.

The first time I did this activity, I had no idea what to expect, but the results blew me away. Start conditions matter. Choose wisely and mix and blend to suit your taste.