Chinese whispers do not just happen in our Hong Kong office. I'm going to talk about when creative process GOES BAD! I could write essays, but have tried to keep it brief.
Firstly… Design continuity - is the ability of an idea to remain as consistent as possible from conception to execution. The theory of design continuity is a pretty solid one and can stop concepts becoming diluted by fuzzy thinking. It does not rule out designs needing to adapt to restrictions (e.g. manufacturing, safety etc.), but it tries to avoid “design by committee” which can lead to a lot of half-arsed ideas being cobbled together into one big compromise. Yuck.
Chinese Whispers is a kids’ game. The participants sit in a circle and whisper a message around the room. When the message reaches the end person, its meaning has changed dramatically, often with comical results. Famously "Send re-enforcements, we're going to advance" ends up as "Send two and sixpence, we're going to a dance." - An old WW1 example from the trenches apparently.
An element of Chinese Whispers occurs in design work, and affects the transfer of information from person to person – and therefore, the design continuity. Information can be lost in the "space" between people. This problem is especially apparent in design work because the design process includes passing ideas to other people, rather than hard information.
Another factor of design continuity is the changing ownership of an idea. This can have equally negative effects, if the idea is not fully formed. Creatively, we all think differently. You and I might solve a maths problem in totally different ways, but come to the same conclusion. But it would be unreasonable for me to hand you my notes, mid-working, and expect you to solve the question using my methods. It would take you just as long as doing it yourself in the first place.
Design is similar. A change in design leadership can throw a project from its intended course, and into confusion about earlier decisions.
Every time creative leadership changes, we lose a bit of what was originally conceived, and we gain very little because we are confined by the structure laid out for us. Imagine a composer hands his half-finished manuscript to a contemporary to resolve – Sure, the receiving party would want to stamp his creative mark on the project, but could only do that within the confines of what was intended. Frustrating for both people.
Ultimately the problem is in the communication of an idea between two people. It’s an age old problem with no real answer. Sorry, I bet you thought that was going to end in some kind of epiphany!
Sadly (or not), I think a benevolent creative dictatorship is the best way to run a project.