Behind the Scenes at Pixar: How to Manage a Creative Organization

Over the years, Ed Catmull, president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has developed a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.

Managing a creative organization entails a constant balancing act between the potentially opposing goals of encouraging creative freedom and ensuring an orderly process and consistent financial results.

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that it people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision-making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group.

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.

Pixar’s mechanism to collaboration is the Braintrust, which they rely on to push them toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. According to Catmull, the premise of the Braintrust is simple:

Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.

The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

Phenomenal, as in:

Pixar16

17 movies released since Pixar began in 1995

14 No. 1 Box Office hits in a row

Over $10.7 billion in ticket sales

Which makes it all the more strange to hear Catmull give his opinion about 1 common theme of all Pixar movies:

Early on, all our movies suck.

Catmull says that phrasing is blunt, but he chose it because saying it any softer fails to convey how bad the first versions really are.

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.

No matter what, the process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.

When questioned about the Braintrust being like any other feedback mechanism, Catmull elaborated:

There are two key differences. First, the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. Second, the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific questions. It is up to him or her how to address the feedback.

If the foundation of the Braintrust is candor, its supporting framework is that the directors must be ready to hear the truth. Candor is only valuable it the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can. – Andrew Stanton, Pixar director, screenwriter, producer, and occasional voice actor

Leaders who resonate with ideas like the Braintrust but fear they would never work at their organizations should note Stanton’s encouragement:

You can and should make your own solution group. Here are the qualifications: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.

 That’s advice any organization would do well to take.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Look for Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc

 

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They Made It – We Borrow It

There is no such thing as a truly original idea. – David Kord Murray

Great thinkers throughout history have understood this and used it to their advantage.

courtesy ledenergy.ca

courtesy ledenergy.ca

Connecting to and building on other people’s ideas and insights can compensate you better than the exclusivity of building something from scratch. Why try to come up with an original idea when someone else has already done the hard work for you? All great innovators cast a wide net to incite creative thought by looking beyond their category and into analogous organizations around the world.

Good ideas are everywhere, but only you can make them relevant to your world.

Debra Kaye, author of Red Thread Thinking, calls this process World Mining. She encourages us to mine deeply to:

  • Seek external inspiration internationally from other companies’ successes, from outside experts, and from creative consumers
  • Identify valued benefits delivered by analogous categories that speak to potential brand promises, brand characteristics, or product experience
  • Review innovative products that are changing competitive landscapes in other categories
  • Assess new technology as a basis for interest

David Kord Murray espouses a similar train of thought in his book Borrowing Brilliance. It will challenge you as it examines the evolution of a creative idea. It also offers practical advice, taking the reader step-by-step through Murray’s unique thought process. Here are the six steps:

  • Defining – define the problem you’re trying to solve
  • Borrowing – Borrow ideas from places with a similar problem
  • Combining – Connect and combine these borrowed ideas
  • Incubating – Allow the combinations to incubate into a solution
  • Judging – Identify the strength and weakness of the solution
  • Enhancing – Eliminate the weak points while enhancing the strong ones

Read a quick summary of the six steps here. You can also get more information here.

Any pool of ideas or existing assets, no matter how divergent from your own organization, can unlock new and even revolutionary areas of discovery and innovation.

The key to finding and borrowing rich resources is becoming attuned to the environment and seeing beyond what’s in front of you, whether you’re just an engaged consumer or looking at other cultures.

Set yourself on the lookout for threads and connections when you observe your surroundings, ask yourself questions, and free your mind.

Somebody probably made it first – it’s up to you to make it better.

inspired by 

Red Thread Thinking, by Debra Kay with Karen Kelly

Borrowing Brilliance, by David Kord Murray

Red Thread ThinkingBorrowing Brilliance

Leaders Curate Ideas

You don’t make a great museum by putting all the art in the world into a single room.

That’s a warehouse.

What makes a museum great is the stuff that’s not on the walls. Someone says no. A curator is involved, making conscious decisions about what should stay and what should go. There’s an editing process. There’s a lot more stuff off the walls than on the walls. The best is a sub-sub-subset of all the possibilities.

It’s the stuff you leave out that matters.

So constantly look for things to remove, simplify, and streamline. Be a curator. Stick to what’s truly essential. Pare things down until you’re left with only the most important stuff. Then do it again. You can always add stuff back in later if you need to.

The inspirational words above come from the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 37signals. If you don’t own it, you should.

The artwork below is by illustrator Mike Rohde.

Be a curator

Both are important to me, as they represent the role I began at Auxano four years ago today – the Vision Room Curator.

My role has expanded in many ways since 2012 – but at the heart of everything I do is the concept of curation. But I don’t curate things – I curate ideas, represented in the image above by the light bulbs. There’s a lot of ideas floating around in the world today – but only a few need to be turned on.

Being a curator may be my vocational role, but it’s also something every leader needs to practice.

What will you curate today?

 

 

 

Using a Systems Thinking Approach to Innovation

How a conversation with Flik reminded me that innovation and systems thinking aren’t mutually exclusive.

AK-Flick1

If you’ve never seen A Bug’s Life, it was the 2nd Pixar film released following the amazing debut of Toy Story. If you haven’t seen it at all, or recently, I recommend you watch it for pure enjoyment and the lessons it contains.

Flik is a entrepreneurial ant (that paradox is a leadership book in itself!) whose latest invention is a machine that allows ants to do more faster, thus satisfying the demands of their grasshopper overlords. It works for a while, but then disaster strikes and Flik has to scramble to come up with new solutions to save the colony.

That’s all the storyline I’m going to give you; I hope it whets your appetite to view the movie.

A recent encounter with a life-sized Flik at Disney’s Animal Kingdom brought to mind this fact:

When you’re working on a project, things always go smoother when you have the right tools at hand.

If your mind is working on something innovative, the same is true. The mind is full of ideas from past experiences and from observations gained through conversations, movies, television, etc. While you may chose to rely on your subconscious mind to access these ideas, why not take a more structured approach, using specific tools and techniques?

In her book “The Seeds of Innovation”, Elaine Dundon has created a systems thinking approach to innovation. At first those two thoughts seem contradictory, but in reality it can become a very powerful synergy. For example, here’s a “toolkit” you can dive into when you are faced with a challenge in your ministry.

Rummaging in the Attic – elements of previous solutions or ideas can prove to be very valuable fuel for jump-starting your idea engine. Find old ideas, dust them off, and reconnect them in new ways to your current problem or opportunity.

Cultivating Obsession – a great way to find new ideas it to become obsessed with the challenge that confronts you. It means you have to immerse yourself in the challenge, to seek out all the information you possibly can. Obsession will lead to better insights.

Analyzing Frustrations – one of the most fertile areas for identifying new ideas is discovering what frustrates others about the current problem. Focusing on what is not working will sometimes be the origin of a new breakthrough idea.

Identifying the Gold Standard – no matter what the challenge you are facing, someone else has already been down that road. Seek out these people or organizations that have solved a similar challenge in an outstanding way. Make a list of the elements of the process or program that made it work for them, and relate this list to your situation.

Adopting and Adapting – great ideas already exist all around you. Find them out and adopt them as your own. Look within the category of your opportunity, but also look outside the box. Innovators look beyond the borders of their own situation to find new ideas to adopt and adapt.

Combining Ideas – innovative thinking is a little like a cake you bake: take a little of this, a little of that, put them together and you have a delicious dessert. Creative thinkers are aware of the objects and ideas around them and look for new connections by combining diverse ideas and objects.

Finding Similarities – think of other challenges that might be similar. Draw analogies to similar situations, let your mind wander, and you will most likely discover a new connection from an unlikely source.

Breaking Down the DNA – what if your problem is overwhelming? Break it down into its component parts and focus on it bit by bit. Analyzing every step in the process will allow you to discover new answers.

Listing and Twisting – this is actually a follow-on step from the previous one. Once you have listed the steps in the process, you can “twist” them around to find new ideas.

Become a Visual Thinker – something happens when we move away from a linear process of thinking and start to doodle or draw. I’m a big fan of this method; I have a 4’ x 8’ whiteboard on my office wall that I’m constantly stepping up to and sketching out an idea. It seems that your subconscious mind takes over and new connections begin to appear.

Whether you use a process like the ones above, or just pull up a chair with a cup of coffee in hand to think, the point is that innovation is a process. You know where you are; hopefully you know where you want to be. Let your imagination run wild in the space between, and before long you and your team will have a plan to move forward.

At Chick-fil-A, HATCH Comes First – Even Before the Chicken or the Egg

At some point in the future, you will be going to a Chick-fil-A restaurant that looks and works a lot different from the one you are familiar with today. It might even have different menu items, or the food might taste a little different.

Guess what? 

The Chick-fil-A restaurant of the next decade already exists, but you will only find it inside HATCH, Chick-fil-A’s Innovation and Learning Center located on their Atlanta campus.

HATCHWelcome

I have been fortunate to be part of a group learning session at the Innovation Center. This 80,000 square foot facility located near the company’s headquarters is dedicated to helping the company invent its way forward. Inside Nest, the Pen, and other cleverly named spaces, CFA is building the next generation of customer experiences and the capabilities that make it possible.

The session gave me a front-row seat where corporate innovation is headed and allowed interaction with CFA leaders on how innovation and creativity are solidly in the center of their company culture.

Launched in late 2012, HATCH is aimed at strengthening the customer experience, the brand, and enriching the company’s culture.

HATCHLobby

In a converted warehouse, restaurant operators, researchers, designers, and staff gather to collaborate and develop whatever the Chick-fil-A brand and its customers need next. Space is divided into cleverly named work areas:

  • Feeder – cafeteria
  • Nest – learning spaces
  • Coop – working prototype restaurants
  • Incubator – collaboration area
  • Pen –  work spaces for architects and designers

This award-winning space has been purposely designed to foster the interchange of ideas and new opportunities for people who work in different areas of the company to get to know each other.

HATCH even includes a virtual simulator, which is used to very inexpensively prototype new restaurant concepts, technologies, and even kitchen operations. During my session, one of our team donned a headset and experienced the 3D world of a new store concept while the rest of us were able to observe what he was viewing on a 2D screen in the room.

VirtualReality2

 What can ChurchWorld leaders learn from Chick-fil-A and their HATCH Innovation Center?

It’s unlikely that any church would invest a fraction of the resources that Chick-fil-A has on innovation, but that doesn’t mean innovation is beyond the reach of churches.

Larry Osborne is Senior Pastor at North Coast Church near San Diego, CA. North Coast is widely recognized as one of the most influential and innovative churches in America, and Osborne’s book Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret provides a wealth of information that church leaders who want to be innovative in ministry can easily access.

Early in the book, Osborne states that many churches have a natural tendency to protect the past at the cost of the future. His solution: Find ways to identify and release the gifted innovators in your midst.

It’s like creating a mini-HATCH environment in your church.

Osborne thinks that in order to identify these types of innovators in your midst, you must first understand how they think and see the world. He has identified 3 telltale traits that set them apart from others:

  1. A special kind of insight – an uncanny knack for predicting what will work and what won’t work and how large groups of people will respond to new ideas.
  2. A unique form of courage – the ability to take carefully calculated risks by trusting their carefully crafted mental models of what could be.
  3. Extraordinary flexibility – the ability to quickly turn on a dime; a master of mid-course correction.

If you’re going to innovate in ministry, you will have to find ways to identify the fledgling innovators in your church and then find ways to support some of their seemingly crazy ideas.

Like the chicken sandwich…


 

A quick note: I will be returning to the HATCH Innovation Center in a few days as a part of a networking group learning experience. Look for an update soon!

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Habits of Successful Innovators

Successful innovators have ways of looking at the world that throw new opportunities into sharp relief. They have developed, often by accident, a set of perceptual habits that allow them to pierce the fog of “what is” and catch a glimpse of “what could be.”

– Gary Hamel. What Matters Now

Successful innovators pay attention to four things that usually go unexamined:

  • Unchallenged Orthodoxies – to be an innovator you have to challenge the beliefs that everyone else takes for granted – the long-held assumptions that blind organizational leaders to new ways of doing business. Within any organization, mental models tend to converge over time. As the years pass, the intellectual gene pool becomes a stagnant pond. Success accelerates this process: effective strategies get translated into operational policies which spawn best practices which harden into habits. Innovators, being natural contrarians, are not afraid to challenge long-held practices and beliefs.
  • Underappreciated Trends – innovators pay close attention to emerging trends, to the embryonic discontinuities that have the potential to invigorate old organizations and create new ones. Innovators are on the constant look-out for emerging discontinuities – in technology, regulations, lifestyle, values, and geopolitics – that could be harnessed to overturn old organizational structures. What this requires is not so much a crystal ball as a wide-angle lens. Innovators learn in places that their competitors aren’t even looking.
  • Underleveraged Competencies and Assets – every organization is a bundle of skills and assets. Typically these things are embedded in legacy structures, but if repurposed, they can often serve as platforms for innovation and growth. Innovation gets stymied when an organization defines itself by what it does rather than by what it knows or owns – when its self-conception is built around products and technologies rather than around core competencies and strategic assets. To innovate, you need to see your organization and the world around it as  portfolio of skills and assets that can be endlessly recombined into new products and organizations.
  • Unarticulated Needs -In order to amaze customer with the unexpected, you must first uncover unspoken needs.  Customers, like the rest of us, are prisoners of the familiar. Innovators are good at spotting the inconveniences and encumbrances the customers have come to take for granted, and that organizational veterans mostly ignore. The innovator’s goal is to amaze customers with something they could never have imagined, but having once experienced it, can’t imagine living without.

Innovators who are successful again and again have developed perceptual routines that help them see beyond the ordinary. It’s time for you as a leader to help your team view the world around them with fresh eyes.

That would include leaders in ChurchWorld.

inspired by and adapted from What Matters Now, by Gary Hamel

What Matters Now

Too Much Brainstorming Will Only Leave You All Wet

The conventional wisdom that innovation can be institutionalized or done in a formal group is simply wrong. – Debra Kaye, Red Thread Thinking

According to author Debra Kaye in Red Thread Thinking, recent studies of the brain make it clear why the best new ideas don’t emerge from formal brainstorming.

The brain doesn’t make connections in a rigid atmosphere – there’s too much pressure and too much influence from others in the group. The “free association” most often given as a benefit of brainstorming is often shackled by peer pressure, delivering obvious, predictable responses.

What’s the answer? Try getting away from it all.

Fresh ideas come when your brain is relaxed and engaged in something other than the particular problem you are embroiled in. To harness strategic intuition, you have to leave the subject and the facts and stop thinking so hard about them.

Maybe you should waste a little time…

Here are 7 ways to use the power of wasting time to jump-start your thinking:

  • Meditation – meditation increases your power of concentration and allows your mind to become free enough to let ideas flow
  • Sleep on it – sometimes, you just need to put your project aside overnight. When the pressure is off, it’s amazing what possibilities develop
  • Sleep tight – research has shown that when you learn something and then sleep on it, your knowledge of what you’ve learned becomes deeper
  • Exercise – getting on a bike, taking a walk, lifting weights – some form of exercise – is good not only for your gut, but for your gut instinct, too
  • Act metaphorically – researchers wondered if acting out the ideas in common metaphors like “thinking outside the box” and “putting two and two together” would make people more creative. They were right – so consider getting out of your box (office) to free up your mind?
  • Read about how smart you are – nerve cells in our brains make stronger connections after we learn something new. Think and learn about your capacity to be smarter – and you just may be
  • “Me” time – spending time engaged in activities you really like enhances innovative thinking

The literal presence of mind that comes when you clear your brain of all expectations is what usually precedes a flash of insight. That flash gives you the power to come up with and act on an idea.

Go ahead – take a walk…

courtesy manhattanportage.com

courtesy manhattanportage.com

…your boss can thank you later!

 

inspired by Red Thread Thinking, by Debra Kaye

Red Thread Thinking