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Fostering collective creativity at Pixar

Ed Catmull's article "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" is worth the price of the September 2008 Harvard Business Review.

A few nuggets from Pixar's president:

"The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity."

"If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they'll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they'll make it work."

"Clear values, constant communication, routine postmortems, and the regular injection of outsiders who will challenge the status quo aren't enough. Strong leadership is also essential — to make sure people don't pay lip service ot the values, tune out the communications, game the processes and automatically discount newcomers' observations and suggestions."

And my personal favourite, for any workplace where blindsiding the boss is a cardinal sin…

"Members of any department should be able to to approach anyone in another department to solve problems without having to go through proper channels. It also means that managers need to learn that they don't always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it's OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised. The most efficient way to deal with numerous problems is to trust people to work out the difficulties directly with each other without having to check for permission."

Book review: A sense of urgency (not complacency)

A Sense of Urgency

By John Kotter

(Harvard Business Press, $22)

It's 9 a.m. on a Monday and where else would you rather be than in a meeting? An urgent and mandatory meeting.

The meeting was booked in your calendar two weeks ago. The meeting was called to deal with a crisis that broke early last month. Revenues are way down. Expenses are way up. Projections are way off and the long range forecast doesn't look good.

The first 15 minutes of the meeting are devoted to grazing the continental breakfast buffet, debating whether Heath Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar for his work as the Joker, wondering if we'll ever again have a weekend without rain and waiting for the usual stragglers to saunter in.

Your commander-in-chief kicks things off in typical fashion with a well-worn joke and a blown punch line.

Next up is the chief numbers guy to deliver the sobering state of the union address. But the numbers guy doesn't have the 70-slide PowerPoint that he's been working on for the last 10 days. It's half done and back in his office. So the numbers guy wings it for the next 20 minutes, giving ballpark guesstimates on what's wrong and what's needed to right the ship.

Half the room debates the numbers guy. There's nothing to worry about. The sky isn't falling. It's always darkest before the dawn. We've been here before and everything always turns out all right.

The other half of the room feeds their "Crackberry" addictions.

The commander-in-chief gets pulled out of the meeting three times to take important phone calls and sign important documents.

With 10 minutes left on the clock, a contingent of managers packs up and heads off to seize a day jammed with marathon meetings. Taking a cue from the mass exodus, the commander-in-chief wraps things up by saying something must be done and promising to strike a task force that will develop a set of recommendations and report back within the next six to eight months.

If you're smart, you'll skip your next meeting, run back to your office, knock the rust off your resume and start booking lunch dates with anyone who can offer you a new gig.

Beware of complacency. It's a big problem in a whole lot of organizations, according to author John Kotter.

"We have all seen it," he writes. "Yet we underestimate its power and its prevalence. Highly destructive complacency is, in fact, all around us, including in places where people would deny it, deny it and deny it still more."

Kotter estimates that 70 per cent of change projects fail, creating an enormous drag on organizations, communities, governments and economies.

When doing post-mortems on projects that end badly, Kotter finds the No. 1 problem is an inability to ignite a sense of urgency.

Complacency is the culprit.

We stick with the status quo. We shy away from new opportunities and choose to ignore huge risks. We live off the fumes of past success.

"In a fast-moving and changing world, a sleepy or steadfast contentment with the status quo can create disaster."

Now some of us get busy. Really, really busy. We run off to meetings with overloaded agendas. We crank out PowerPoints and fire off hundreds of e-mails before lunch. But at the end of another long and frenetic day, we do nothing that adds any real value to our organizations.

We're exhibiting false urgency, which can be as bad, if not worse, than complacency, Kotter says.

"This flurry of behaviour is not driven by any underlying determination to move and win, now. It's driven by pressures that create anxiety and anger. The resulting frantic activity is more distracting than useful.

"Who can feel absolutely determined to deal now with the central issues facing an organization after racing into nine meetings on nine different topics in the space of one day?"

What you want is a true sense of urgency. Kotter calls it a gut-level determination to move and win now. To do something important today.

It's about being alert and proactive. Paying as much attention to what's happening outside your organization as to what's going on inside the walls of your workplace. Taking smart risks.

"With a true sense of urgency, people want to come to work each day ready to co-operate energetically and responsively with intelligent initiatives from others. And they do. People want to find ways to launch smart initiatives. And they do. They don't move at 35 miles per hour when 65 is needed to win."

So how do you get buy-in for urgency in an organization where complacency and false urgency rule the day? Kotter offers up one strategy and four tactics.

Create a sense of urgency by aiming for the heart first and head second. Feelings are more influential than thoughts, Kotter says.

Emotion trumps logic. It's worth remembering that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't have a strategic plan. He had a dream.

"Behaving with passions, conviction, optimism, urgency and a steely determination will trump an analytically brilliant memo every time."

As for tactics, bring outside reality into groups that are inwardly focused and lulled by past success. Narrow the gap between what's happening outside your organization and what people are seeing and feeling on the inside.

Have customers, clients and competitors do show-and-tells with the troops. Get them on video or live in person to say, "Here's what you're doing right, here's what you're doing wrong and here's what your competitors are doing better than you."

Bring people in. Send your people out.

Second, behave with true urgency every single day. Lead by example. What you say, and more importantly do, tells everyone you're bound and determined to move and win now.

Clear the decks. A crowded appointment diary is one of the great enemies of urgency, Kotter says. Scrap low-value meetings and don't let people delegate problems up to you.

Third, look for the upside potential in crisis. Can you use a crisis to create a burning platform so that even the most complacent are eventually forced to jump? Just make sure the crisis is visible, unambiguous, related to real business problems and significant enough that simple, small solutions won't work. And never give the impression that you're staging a crisis to manipulate people to act.

And finally, deal decisively with the NoNos in your organization. These are the wet blankets who kill urgency, crush new ideas and discredit anyone who tries to break with the status quo. They'll give you 12 reasons why a new idea is a wrong idea. Don't ignore them or try to co-opt them. Kotter recommends distracting them, firing them or outing NoNos and letting social forces in the workplace reduce or stop their destructive behaviours.

"A real sense of urgency is rare, much rarer than most people seem to think," Kotter says. "A big reason that a true sense of urgency is rare is that it is not a natural state of affairs. It has to be created and re-created."

The good news is Kotter shows how to get it done. So get moving in the right direction.

Book review: Dare to be big

Be Big. Step Up. Step Out. Be Bold

By Judith Katz and Frederick Miller

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

$13.95

I turned 40 last month.

My wife pulled together a surprise birthday dinner with family and a child-free weekend at the Four Seasons. We slept in until 10:30 a.m., which ranks high on the list of all-time greatest gifts.

I had two birthday cakes. I blew out the first set of candles wishing for money figuring I've already got enough happiness. The second time I blew out candles, I wished for bigness.

Not the sort of bigness that comes from eating birthday cake for breakfast, a cherished Robb family tradition that my wife has yet to warm up to.

Instead, I wished for the bigness that comes from stepping up, stepping out and being bold both at work and in the community.

And I made the wish while thinking about my dad. He was big with his family and he was big with the kids he taught and mentored as an elementary school teacher and principal. But could he of been even bigger?

What if, on his 40th birthday, he'd somehow gotten word from on high that he was down to his final decade? That he wouldn't get to blow out the candles on his 51st birthday cake? That there'd be no post-retirement second-half where he could do everything he'd put on hold? How much bigger would my dad have gotten, knowing how little time was left on the clock and that there wasn't a year, a month or a week to waste?

It's a wake-up call more of us need to hear, say authors Judith Katz and Frederick Miller. We're nowhere near as big as we could, and should, be. Being big isn't about ego or fame, showing off or showing others up.

Being big means being brave and having the courage to dream, think and show up big so that we do our best work. It's about standing up for what you believe in and doing what's right and what's best for the greater good.

"Many of us have a strong desire to be big," say the authors. "To give our best every day. To not hide out or be small. Many of us want to be big in order to bring our voice and add great value, and to enable our coworkers and partners to do the same."

But while we want to be big, we act small. We don't show up. We don't step up. And we don't speak out. We fool ourselves into believing that things are just fine the way they are at work and in our community. We tell ourselves that one person can't make a difference and even if one person could, that person's definitely not us. We're not cut out to be a hero or a trailblazer.

We like to believe that it's better to be safe than sorry. We're a small fish in a big pond. Best to lay low and fly under the radar, contributing far less than we're capable of.

"While some of us may feel small because we lack self-confidence, certain management styles and workplace cultures contribute as well," say the authors. "In some organizations, it can be dangerous to be big enough to stand out. It can be dangerous to step out of the box you, or others, have put you in. It can get you criticized. It can get you ostracized. It can get you fired."

Lousy bosses routinely send their staff on the express train to Smallville. They don't pay attention, don't listen and don't seem to care about anyone but themselves. They talk over everyone else and don't give airtime to any ideas but their own. Rocking the boat and making waves are cardinal sins. These bosses can rhyme off all the shortcomings, weaknesses and screw-ups by their staff but draw a blank when it comes to talking about talents, strengths and potential.

Keeping employees small isn't smart. Given the pace of change and the size and scope of challenges coming at our organizations, everyone needs to give their best every day.

Checking your head and heart at the door risks shrinking organizations down to irrelevance.

"Organizations need all of us to bring more of ourselves to the workplace," say the authors. "Innovation, problem solving and productivity depend upon us being big. Each person must contribute to collectively have a big impact on achieving the goals of the organization."

So how do we get bigger? Katz and Miller map out four steps.

  1. Step up to the challenge of being big, to new responsibilities and to the opportunities for growth and partnership.
  2. Step out of old routines, from being your small self and seeing others as small.
  3. Be bold. Speak up rather than stay silent. Identify where and how you can be big and connect with others who are doing the same. Be ready and able to take the heat for being big.
  4. And finally, dare to stand up for yourself. Consider new ideas. Make mistakes. Encourage others to get in the game. Create new thoughts, new dreams and new possibilities.

Getting out of your comfort zone and getting big isn't easy, say the authors. Inspiring the folks around you to get big is even more of a challenge.

And the biggest challenge of all is to get everyone to be big together.

That's easier said than done. Many of us prefer to go it alone. We don't want anyone meddling in our work or looking over our shoulder.

The more people involved, the more time it takes to get the job done and who has any time to spare? We're leery of groupthink and not keen on sharing the credit. And the more control we keep, the more comfortable we feel.

Yet we'll always do better by working together. We need each other's competencies, experiences and perspectives. "Each new point of view and set of skills adds t our capabilities, our potential and our completeness, collectively and individually. If we are going to succeed over the long haul, everybody needs to be willing to step up and step out together, to be big and get smarter as we go."

So stop hiding and playing it safe by being small. Work up the courage to step up. Step out. And be bold. Be big because you don't know how many more birthday candles you'll get to blow out.