How to Use a Brain Trust to Spark Creativity on Your Team

In our fast-paced digital life, church leadership teams need to be creative in order to deal with the changes coming their way today – or they risk irrelevancy tomorrow.

Creativity then, becomes a constant process for every ministry area of any church rather than an occasional requirement for the worship pastor at Christmas or only limited to those “creative” churches.

Like farmers and their crops, leaders cannot dictate creativity, but they are called to cultivate creativity. Thinking and acting creatively doesn’t just happen because a leader desires it or orders it to happen. With the right environment, resources, mindset, and vision, your team will be able to develop the required motivation to be creative on their own.

How can I unleash the creativity of my team?

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Solution: Create a Brain Trust

THE QUICK SUMMARY

Creativity, Inc. is a book for leaders who want to lead their teams to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation—into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made.

It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture—but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation through joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, and the emotional authenticity. In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

Among the many necessities for creativity is the freedom for a team to share ideas , comments, and critiques with one another. The flip side of that freedom is the danger of being too critical, or that critical comments are taken the wrong way.

How can leaders walk the fine line between encouraging open, honest dialogue among their team while at the same time avoiding negative, destructive criticism? 

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 throughline or a hollow character finds a soul.

One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely upon to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. The Braintrust is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another.

It’s not foolproof – sometimes the interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor – but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything else we do.

Participants in the Braintrust do not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They test weak points, they make suggestions, but it is up to the director to settle on a path forward.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. In order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while. Soon, the details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction.

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

The Braintrust differs from other feedback mechanisms in two ways:

  • It is made up of people with a deep understanding of the process at hand and who have been through it themselves;
  • It has no authority – the director (leader) has to figure out how to address the feedback.

We believe that ideas only become great when they are challenged and tested.

– Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

A NEXT STEP

Does your leadership team debate, disagree, discuss, dump—or do you dialogue?  The group dynamics of a team can make or break your effectiveness as a leader.   Imagine what could happen in your ministry if you could lubricate your team’s communication skills.

Engaging the methods of dialogue results in two-way, open communication that generates an uninhibited flow of ideas in a “braintrust” environment.

Dialogue relates to more than communication—it involves creating an environment of trust, discipline and commitment to a common purpose where teams “think together.”

With an understanding of the basics of dialogue, the team must relentlessly:

  • Practice listening to hear, not to react
  • Practice asking to explore ideas, not to judge
  • Practice advocating an idea that focuses on the question at hand, not to defend a position

The core of dialogue is that there is understanding and discipline on the team that the question –the problem at hand—always remains the focus of the dialogue, with the church’s vision as primary filter. It works because individuals put aside egos, assumptions, emotions and agendas to focus on the question for the good of the whole–the collective vision of the church or ministry. In a true “Braintrust” dialogue, ideas get affirmed or challenged, not people.

Auxano, the consulting group I work for, has developed a hands-on tool to use in collaborative meetings that not only reinforces understanding of dialogue and team dynamics, but personally engages each individual to enter into productive, healthy collaboration and apply what they have learned.

We call it the Collaboration Cube.

Our Collaboration Cube takes these ideas to an experiential level that not only encourages team involvement in dialogue, but gives them the ability to apply it. The cube is used by the facilitator to guide the group, and by team members to communicate within the Braintrust.

Imagine creating a “Braintrust” at your church: a unified team that can work together and support decisions because they are results that people really care about and they evolved from a shared experience. What could you do with that kind of cohesive culture?  Give this method a try and watch the collective intelligence of your team and your decisions increase with results for your ministry that are unprecedented.

Read more about the Collaboration Cube, or visit our online store to purchase them


Closing Thoughts

Creativity and innovation are the life blood of a thriving ministry. But even the most creative team can become stale or fall into a rut of the same old same old. Your actions as a leader will determine if your team stays the same, or is constantly reinventing itself.

Taken from SUMS Remix, Issue 15-3, May, 2015


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “summary” for church leaders. I’m going to peruse back issues of both SUMS and SUMS Remix and publish excerpts each Wednesday.

You can find out more information about SUMS Remix here.

Subscribe to SUMS Remix here.

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:

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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

 

Using a Systems Thinking Approach to Innovation

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

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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.

It’s Time to Go Out and Play

The Recess Test – How Playful is Your Organization?

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  • Is it common to hear laughter coming from your employees?
  • Does the laughter stop or diminish when management is around?
  • Is the workplace humor good-natured constructive ribbing rather than destructive sarcastic criticism?
  • Does your boss usually have an optimistic and happy attitude?
  • When something gets screwed up, can team members step back and laugh at their own mistake?
  • Do you have fun celebrations on a regular basis?
  • Is the physical workplace conducive to fun?
  • Do you engage your customers (internal or external) in your fun environment?

If you answered “no” to two or more of these questions, your organization may be suffering from terminal “sobriety flippancy” (abstinence from humor).

At least that’s the point authors Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson make in their book Innovate the Pixar Way. In the book, Capodagli and Jackson reveal how Pixar has reawakened the innovative spirit at Walt Disney. In stark contrast to the crippling short-term mentality that eats away at many organizations today, the Pixar organization honors the legacy of Walt Disney by refusing to take shortcuts, by fulfilling the promise of bringing the story to life in each and every movie they make, and by championing a simple formula espoused by the chief creative officer of Pixar and  Disney Animation Studios, John Lasseter: “Quality is the best business plan of all.”

Throughout the book, the authors encourage you to think like a child. They have shown Pixar to be a “playground” that will inspire you to:

  • Dream like a child.
  • Believe in your playmates
  • Dare to jump in the water and make waves
  • Do unleash your childhood potential

Do you have the capacity to do that? If not, here are seven actions the authors recommend you take to fire up your workplace:

  1. Create a unique playground – Pixar’s main building is designed for natural interaction of all team members and includes the freedom to decorate your own space; if you want to be innovative, make your workspace a home-away-from-home.
  2. Think play – each month, assign a “recess team” to dream up a fun experience.
  3. Allow personalized work space – encourage employees to demonstrate their creativity by decorating their individual offices, cubicles, desks, or work areas.
  4. Celebrate – make time for celebrations to note life’s milestones: a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation.
  5. Grant employees permission to be recognized for their work by “outsiders” – encourage employees to join professional associations in which they have an opportunity to display their work, gain peer and industry recognition for their accomplishments, and most of all, have fun.
  6. Be a role model for mutual respect and trust – the level of mutual respect and trust in your workplace is directly proportional to worker’s attitudes regarding play and fun.
  7. Laugh at yourself – leaders who demonstrate self-deprecating humor set the tone for workplace play and fun.

Fun and play are imperative to strengthening one’s imagination, creative abilities, and most of all, innovative thinking.

Isn’t it time to ring the bell for recess at your place?

 

Inspired by Innovate the Pixar Way, by  Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson

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With a 14 for 14 Record, Pixar’s Ed Catmull Has Some Advice Your Organization Needs to Hear

A 14 for 14 record would be an impressive statistic for a baseball player batting in spring training, but when you apply that stat to Pixar’s box office hits, it becomes simply astounding.

With the release of Toy Story in 1995, culminating in last year’s Monsters University, Pixar has released 14 movies – and all 14 became No. 1 box office hits.

Interestingly enough, though, the president of Pixar says they all were not good – at first.

There’s got to be a lesson for ChurchWorld leaders in there!

A 2014 best-seller entitle Creativity, Inc. by Pixar President Ed Catmull was excerpted in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine (online version). It is a fascinating read, and I’m eagerly awaiting the book’s release.

Till then, here is Catmull giving 8 lessons on how to lead a creative organization:

Protect Creatives from the Organization – Accidentally, and without intending to, organizations smother creativity. The central problem is the stuff organizations put in place that blocks the natural abilities that are already there.

Cherish Your Defining Moment – and Then Find a New One – The work we did to turn around Toy Story 2 was a defining moment in Pixar history. But the bulk of people working at Pixar now didn’t live through that. Solving our newest problem today – these newer people are a part of it, and they will own that solution when they solve it right.

Save the Ugly Baby from the Hungry Beast – Every movie starts out as an ugly baby. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive and requires protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director’s ugly baby. At some point, it will have to grow up and change into something, because the beast is still there.

How to Balance Art and Commerce – With certain ideas, you can predict commercial success. So with a Toy Story 3 or a Cars 2 you know the idea is more likely to have financial success. But it you go down that path too far, you become creatively bankrupt because you’re trying to repeat yourself. So we also want to do things that are unlikely, that are harder to solve – like WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up.

Getting to Frozen: How the Disney Brain Trust Grew Up – When I became the head of Disney Animation, my starting point was to assume that the animation team already there intended to do the right thing, and it was my job to help them understand the Pixar process. It took over two years, but the Disney team learned they weren’t in competition with one another, but that their successes were built on each other’s. Frozen wasn’t an instant hit, but was built on the groundwork laid by Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph.

Why Things Will Always Go Wrong, Even at Pixar – It would be wrong to say that Disney is on the way up (with Frozen) and Pixar is on the way down (with the restart of Good Dinosaur). Just a few years ago the situations were reversed. Whenever we miss something, we analyze it to see what we missed. So we rethink the process and we change some things.

Why Real Risk Means Real Failures – People say they want to be in risky environments and do all kinds of exciting stuff. But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failures and mistakes. We only lose from this if we don’t respond to the failures.

Your Best Tool is a Genius – or a Disaster – There are only two tools that work almost all the time for effecting real change. The first is the presence of a visionary leader, but there just isn’t a large number of these folks. The second is an organization undergoing the right kind of crisis. Everything in between is people trying to do their best.

Excerpted from Fast Company’s April 2014 cover story and related articles about Pixar President Ed Catmull.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

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A New Way to Play Follow the Leader

Walt Disney’s unique definition of leadership:

The ability to establish and manage a creative climate in which individuals and teams are self-motivated to the successful achievement of long-term goals in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Today’s post continues excerpts from Innovate the Pixar Way by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. The authors contend that Pixar has reawakened the innovative spirit of Walt Disney and set new standards for commercial and critical achievement. The book explores how Pixar has built an organization on the simple philosophy that quality is the best business plan. With a track record of 13 for 13 smash feature animation films, it’s hard to argue!

Walt Disney didn’t ascribe to the childhood playbook for “follow the leader” – instead, he created an environment of self-motivated creative thinkers who worked together to deliver a magical, magnetic, enchanting experience for his audience.

Pixar understands leadership the same way.

 

  • Establishment of a Clear Vision – Pixar has a clear vision and communicates that vision to its team. The best leaders are excellent communicators, engaging their teams by providing them with the tools and information needed for success – and then trusting them to do their jobs.
  • Creative Climate – Creative climates need leadership and a management style that helps them to develop and grow and allows them to have fun in the process. Pixar is in the people development business, going to great lengths to nourish and support its team members. They invest in people, creating a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners.
  • Individuals and Teams – Pixar thrives on teamwork, but each person on the team is given creative ownership of even the smallest task. This level of autonomy and accountability is practically unheard of in the movie business, where a top-down fear-driven culture is the norm.
  • Self-Motivated Personnel – great leaders know that self-motivated people are essential to developing a creative culture. Pixar is continually on the lookout for new talent that can blossom with their unique culture. The team at Pixar is 100 percent self-motivated to being as creative as they can be and to making movies the best they can. Period.
  • Long-Term Goals – It’s always been about creating for the long-term at Pixar. Their definition of “long-term” speaks volumes about its culture. They go to great lengths to ensure that its culture can support new ventures and still remains true to their values.
  • Mutual Respect and Trust – Pixar team members have embarked on a journey together, nurturing one another in an environment of mutual respect and trust. When leaders exhibit a high level of respect and trust, earned over time, that’s exactly what they will get in return.

There’s no “follow the leader” game at Pixar. Their playbook simply calls for an open playground where leadership serves as a catalyst in the pursuit of big dreams.

If you were to hold up the “magic mirror on the wall” to your leadership style, what would you see?

Think Like a Director

Pixar is obsessed with only one quality measurement for every film:

It begins and ends around the story.

Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, writing in Innovate the Pixar Way, want leaders to think of their team or organization as if they were the director of a Broadway play. It’s time to sit in the director’s chair and visualize the major pieces of the production and direction of the play – the story, setting, roles, and backstage processes.

Begin with the Story

What’s your dream? What story are you trying to tell? It doesn’t matter if you are creating the next Pixar animated feature film, designing a new appliance, opening a new store, or planning a new ministry to reach people – you have to bring your vision, your story, your dream to life in an exciting and exhilarating way. Craft your story in a way that will ignite the creative energies of your team and mage magical, dream-come-true moments for your “customers.”

Instead of “meeting customer expectations,” start fulfilling their dreams. Craft the experience in terms of:

  • 3-dimensional Technicolor images
  • Dreams fulfilled
  • Magical moments
  • Doing the impossible
  • Story, plot, theme
  • Unique, memorable, and engaging
  • Passionate belief in values

Build the Set

If you were a director, you would have a set designer whose job it is to make sure the visual journey of the audience complements the overall story. Like Walt Disney, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter is fanatical about details:

Every detail has to be thought out, designed, modeled, shaded, placed, and lit…It takes four years to make one of these films and there are no excuses after the movie’s done – it’s going to be that way forever.

The “virtual set” in your organization is immense and includes everything from the parking lot, buildings, and program to the website, graphic displays, and language used. The setting is part of the creative experience – don’t overlook or shortchange it.

Recruit the Cast

As the director of a play or movie you would search the acting community to identify and cast the perfect actor for each role, selecting someone who will make the role come to life, someone who is dynamic, exciting, exuberant, interesting, and believable. Why is it that in the organizational world we tend to look for the candidates who have the best pedigrees, not for the ones who are interesting or diverse or have ideas that might be considered eccentric?

Colorful, unique, memorable, magical moments will seldom be created by boring, myopic, unimaginable people.

Design the Backstage Processes

Imagine it is opening night of your Broadway play. You have an engaging, heartfelt, emotional story. You have an award-winning set designer and have assembled an ensemble of some of the best actors in the industry. You have rehearsed and rehearsed. Fantastic reviews will be forthcoming – or will they?

What if duplicate tickets were sold, the curtain gets stuck halfway up, and the main stage lighting goes out during Act 3? What could have been a colossal hit might struggle to stay open.

Getting your “backstage” support and “onstage” show to all work and play well together can be just as important to the success of your organization as unleashing the creative energies within each department.

Remove the barriers between “backstage” processes and the “onstage” show, and watch the magic happen.

Is it time to stop cutting and pasting your old and frankly boring service and think like a director?

Tomorrow: A New Way to Play “Follow the Leader”