I picture big companies as if each one of them was really some kind of huge person. A giant resembling a businessperson in a suit. To the casual glance, and from the outside, they often seem impeccable, well put together, professional, thoughtful, perfectly groomed, confident, and capable just like a person in a well-cut business suit of the finest fabric. Their logos glint on their lapels. It seems impossible that they could fail at anything.

But companies do fail all the time. I’m not talking about the ones that fail spectacularly, like Enron or Edsel. I’m not talking about spectacular failures at all. I’m talking about the everyday failures that face us in the form of the ever-blinking 12:00 on the vcr that no one can figure out how to set. Failures in the form of cell phones that have so many features they make the people who use them feel stupid. Web sites that ‘obviously’ have all the information, or products, or services we could want but make us tie ourselves in mental knots trying to find the single thing we need or want right now. Why are so many companies like that one brilliant teacher you had in college. You know, the one who clearly knew more about the subject than any person really should, but no one in the class could understand a single thing he said.

I’ve begun to realize that companies can do stupid things even when all of the people working in the company have the best intentions. It’s become all too easy for a company to hire incredibly talented people who research, design, and develop products that people find annoying or pointless. Most talented people don’t want to create annoying, pointless products. So if they want to create great products, and they try their darnedest to do just that, what happens?

Well, behind each giant’s perfect suit there lurks some rather alarming underwear. Beneath the glossy exterior, there’s some serious scaffolding holding together unwieldy chunks of corporate infrastructure. Look a little closer at that polished giant. Unsightly bulges caused by legacy policies and systems are stuffed into pressure stockings. Groups that have been forced to compete with each other for funding are shoved together and chafing. Teams that are fighting for online real estate are struggling with other teams who are sure their features are more important, causing the unsightly effect of two pigs wrestling under a blanket’ where there should be a smooth field of fabric. Corporations can look very polished from the outside, yes. But all too often, when they release products, they can’t hide their unsightly underpants.

Are your corporate underpants showing? Well, do the browse pages and search pages on your web site look so different that it’s clear they are owned by different groups in your company? If so, you might want to take a closer look.

Customers don’t think about sites as a series of ‘pages’ or ‘features.’ They think of the holistic experience. So humor them.

  • Create the holistic experience before you add more features
  • Present an integrated site design
  • Erase all signs of your corporate underpants

This blog is about corporate underpants. Comment on underpants already explored. Create your own page exploring a pair not yet in our ‘online drawer.’ Maybe we’ll get to the bottom of this.

3 Comments

  • By Rod Dornsife on September 8th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Love your site and also loved your book. I am looking forward to more of your posts. I found you as a result of your interview with Seth Godin… his kind words speak volumes.

  • By Barry Tolnas on December 18th, 2007 at 3:42 am

    I trace these problems of corporations which I think are really problems of any formalized group of people beyond a certain small sized group down a little deeper than what you describe as corporate underpants–the combination of legacy systems and internal competitions and turf wars. To my way of thinking all of those things are just manifestations of one thing: human nature (or should I say “human nature’s underpants”.

    The benign form is due to the fact that different people interpret the same observable facts much differently because they have a different internal model for “how thing really work”. (e.g. Republican view versus Democrat view of taxes or best way to solve Middle East problems) The more nefarious form is when people began letting their personal short-term goals override “doing the right thing”.

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