AUTHORS: Edwin Catmull with Amy Wallace
How do we manage creativity within organizations? Ed Catmull tries to answer that often elusive question. Get to know what made Pixar Studios one of the most significant creative enterprises – a manifesto for those who aim to choose people over ideas, and honesty over hiding.
Bonus: management skills include mindfulness practice as a tool for developing self-awareness and the ability to deal with naïve realism.
“The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being. Whether it’s a T-Rex or a slinky dog or a desk lamp, if viewers cents not just movement but intention – or, put another way, emotion – then the animator has done his or her job. It’s not just lines on the paper anymore; it’s a living, feeling entity.”
“I have made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am. The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company – and by extension, you – look good. But there is another, less obvious, payoff that only occurred to me in retrospect. The act of hiring smarter people changed me as a manager: by ignoring my fear, I learned that the fear was groundless. By hiring smart people I had taken a risk, and that risk yielded at the highest reward – brilliant committed teammates.”
“When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”
“The tension between the individual’s personal creative contribution and the leverage of the group is a dynamic that exists in all creative environments. On one hand of the spectrum, we have the genius who seems to do amazing work on his or her own; on the other and we have the group that excels precisely because of its multiplicity of views.”
“Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”
“Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas – they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who would be charged with employing them. ”
“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.”
A defining goal
“There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
“‘Focus, focus, focus!’ This last one was a particular favorite piece of nonadvice. When people hear it, they nodded their heads in agreement as if a great truth has been presented, not realising that they have been diverted from addressing the far harder problem: deciding what it is that they should be focusing on. There is nothing in this advice that gives you any idea how to figure out where the focus should be, or how to apply your energy to it. It ends up being a device that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Watching Steve [Jobs] reminded me of the principle of engineering: sending out a sharp impulse – like a dolphin uses echolocation to determine the location of the school of fish – can teach you crucial things about your environment. Steve used aggressive in their play as a kind of biological sonar. It was how he is sized up the world.”
“The pricing advice I was given – by people who were smart and experienced and well-meaning – was not merely wrong, it kept us from asking the right questions. Instead of talking about whether it’s easier to lower a price then raise it, we should have been addressing more substantive issues such as how to meet the expectations of customers and how to keep investing in software development so that the customers who did buy our product could put it to better use. In retrospect, when I sought the counsel of these more experienced men, I have been seeking simple answers to complex questions – do this, not that – because I was unsure of myself and stressed by the demands of my new job. But simple answers like the “start high” pricing advice – so seductive and its rationality – had distracted me and kept me from asking more fundamental questions.”
“Deming’s philosophy: The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to stop the assembly line. Japanese companies that implemented Deming’s ideas made it easy for workers to do so: they installed a cord that anyone could pull in order to bring production to a halt. Before long, Japanese companies we’re enjoying on unheard-of levels of quality, productivity, and market share.”
“Deming’s approach – and Toyota’s, too – gave ownership of and responsibility for a product’s quality to the people who were most involved in its creation. Instead of merely repeating and action, workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and – this next element seemed particularly important to me – feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken. This resulted in continuous improvement, driving out flaws and improving quality. In other words, the Japanese assembly line became a place where workers’ engagement strengthened the resulting product. And that would eventually transformed manufacturing around the world.”
“While Toyota was a hierarchical organization, to be sure, it was guided by a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.”
“A few years ago, when Toyota stumbled – initially failing to acknowledge serious problems with the braking systems, which led to a rare public embarrassment – I remember being struck that a company as smart as Toyota could act in a way that ran so counter to one of its deepest cultural values. Whatever these forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments.”
“Three times between 1987 and 1991, fed-up Steve Jobs tried to sell Pixar. With each suitor, Steve started with a high price and was unwilling to budge. I came to believe that what he was really looking for was not an exit strategy as much as external validation. His reasoning went like this: if Microsoft was willing to go to $90 million, then we must be worth hanging on to. It was difficult – and enervating – to watch this dance. ”
“This was a revelation to me: The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.”
“For me, this discovery was bracing. Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems.”
“The exchange of information was key to our business, of course, but I believed that it could – and frequently should- happen out of order, without people getting bent out of shape. People talking directly to one another, then letting the manager finding out later, was more efficient than trying I make sure that everything happened in the “right” order and through the “proper” channels.”
“How could we enable the talents of people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavour undo us along the way?”
Establishing Pixar’s identity
“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.”
“It’s easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how the team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. The reason important principle here that may seem obvious, yet is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.
[…] I made a habit, when giving talks, of posing the question to my audience: Which is more valuable, good ideas or good people? When I asked for a show of hands, the audiences would be split 50-50. (statisticians will tell you that when you get a perfect split, it doesn’t mean that half know the right answer – it means that they are all guessing, picking at random, as if flipping a coin).
People think so little about this that, in all these years, only one person in an audience has ever pointing out the false dichotomy. To me, the answer should be obvious:
ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
“Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed an independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people. In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or a patch of shade, every sound effect is they are because it contributes to the greater whole. In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, “A movie about talking toys – what a clever idea!”. But I movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people. This is true of products in general; yet too often we see a single object and think of it as an island that exist apart and unto itself.”
“To reiterate, it is the focus on people – their work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely central to any creative venture. For example, we had a development department, as do all movie studios, that was charged with seeking out and developing ideas to make into films. No. I saw that this made no sense. Going forward, the development department’s charter would be not to develop scripts but to hire good people, figure out what they needed, assign them to projects that matched their skills, and make sure they functioned well together. To this day, we keep adjusting and fiddling with this model, but the underline goals remain the same:
Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”
“Toy Story 2 was a case study in how something that is usually considered a plus – a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline – could destroy itself if left unchecked.
It was management’s job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs.”
“Merely repeating ideas means nothing. You must act – and think – accordingly. Parroting the phrase “Story is King” at Pixar didn’t help that unexperienced directors on Toy story 2 one bit. This guiding principle, while simply stated and easily repeated, didn’t protect us from things going wrong. In fact, it gave us false assurance that things would be okay.”
“Likewise, we “trusted the process”, but the process didn’t save Toy Story 2 either. “Trust the Process” had morphed into “Assume that the Process Will Fix Things for Us”. It gave us solace, which we felt we needed. But it also coaxed us into letting down our guard and, in the end, made us passive.”
“Once it became clear to me, I began telling people that the phrase was meaningless. I told our staff that it had become a crutch that was distracting us from engaging, in a meaningful way, with our problems. We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. The error we had made was forgetting that “the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It’s just a tool – a framework. We needed to take more responsibility and ownership of our own work, our need for self-discipline, and our goals.”
“Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is “Trust the Process” or “Story is King” – a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand for so much more. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation od the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often, we grab the handle and – without realizing it – walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.”
“Once you’re aware of the suitcase/handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere. People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning. Advertisers look for words that imply a product’s value and use that as a substitute for value itself. Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top-shelf products. Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless. Manager scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals. When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, witch migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning.”
“To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us abut ourselves.”
“It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.”
“I have seen directors and writers who were stuck and could not get unstuck, because they couldn’t see where to go next. It is here that some of my colleagues have insisted that I am wrong, that “Trust the Process” has meaning – they see it as a code for “Keep on going, even when things look bleak”. When we trust the process, they argue, we can relax, let go, take a flyer on something radical. We can accept that any given idea may not work and yet minimize our fear of failure because we believe we will get there in the end. When we trust the process, we remember that we are resilient, that we have experienced discouragement before, only to come out the other side. When we trust the process – or perhaps more accurately, when ew trust the people who use the process – we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries. But to me, the key is not to let this trust, our faith, lull us into the abdication of personal responsibility. When that happens, we fall into dull repetition, producing empty versions of what was made before.”
“‘The process either makes you or unmakes you’, Brad Bird says. I like Brad’s way of looking at it because while it gives the process power, it implies that we have an active role to play in it as well. Katherine Sarafian tells me she prefers to envision triggering the process over trusting it – observing it to see where it’s faltering, then slapping it around a bit to make sure it’s awake. Again, the individual plays the active role, not the process itself. Or, to put it in another way, it is up to the individual to remember that it’s okay to use the handle, just as long as you don’t forget the suitcase.”
“John coined a new phrase:
“Quality is the best business plan”.
What he meant was that quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviours. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset that you have before you decide what you are setting out to do.”
Honesty and candor
“People who take on uncomplicated creative project become lost at some point in the process. Is the nature of things – in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is in essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.”
“You are not your idea,and if you begin to identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.
To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.”
“It is natural for people to fear that an inherently critical environment will feel threatening and unpleasant, like a trip to the dentist.
The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as addictive, non competitive.
A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An addictive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion – and ultimately doesn’t work).”
“There is a difference between criticism and constructive criticism. With the latter, you’re constructing at the same time that you’re criticizing. Your building as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work with out the stuff you’ve just ripped apart. That’s an art form in itself. I always feel like whatever notes you were giving should inspire the recipient – like, ‘How do I get that kid to want to redo his homework?’ So, you’ve got to act like a teacher. Sometimes you talk about the problems in 50 different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, as if they are thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do it’. Instead of saying ‘The writing in this sheen isn’t good enough’, you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting this lines?’ It’s more of a challenge. ‘Isn’t this what you want? I want than too!'” (Andrew Stanton)
“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. Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.”
Fear and failure
“Fail early and fail fast” – “Be wrong as fast as you can”. (Andrew Stanton)
He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes – without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go.”
To be a wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.”
“Failure is an manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you’re making a far worst mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.
As Andrew puts it, “Moving things forward allows the team you are leading to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m on a boat that is actually going towards land.’ As opposed to having a leader who says, ‘I am still not sure. I’m going to look at the map a little bit more calm and we are just going to float here, and all of you stop rowing until I figure this out.’ And then weeks go by, and morale plummets, and failure becomes self fulfilling.”
“Failure is difficult enough without it being compounded by the search for a scapegoat.”
“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people live consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek is dad to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. They are work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.
If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.
You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable at high-stakes situations. What I want to do is loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.
“You will begin to see the upside of decisiveness: The time you have saved by not gnashing your teeth about whether you are on the right course comes in handy when you hit a dead end and need to reboot.”
“It isn’t enough to pick a path – you must go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see you when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explored the neighborhood”.
The key point here is that even if you decide you’re in the wrong place, there is still time to head toward the right place. And all the thinking you’ve done that led you down that alley was not wasted. Even if most of what you’ve seen doesn’t fit your needs, you inevitably take away ideas that will prove useful. Relatedly, if there are parts of the neighborhood you like but that don’t seem helpful in the quest you’re on, you will remember those parts and possibly use them later.”
“When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.”
“There is an alternative approach to being wrong as fast as you can. It is the notion that if you carefully think everything through, if you are meticulous and plan well and consider all possible outcomes, you are more likely to create a lasting product. But I should caution that if you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them – if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line – well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work – things that copy or repeat something already out there. So
if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.
Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There is a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.”
“Just because “failure free” is crucial in some industries does not mean that it should be a goal and all of them. When it comes to creative endeavors,tThe concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.
While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance. Probably more companies hit the skids for this reason than because they dared to push boundaries and take risks – and, yes, to fail.”
“If the crew is confused, then their leader is, too.”
“Any failure as a creative company is a failure of many, not one.”
“There are two parts to any failure: there is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is this second part that we control.”
“As leaders, we should think of ourselves as teachers and try to create companies in which teaching is seen as a valued way to contribute to the success of the whole. Do you think of most activities as teaching opportunities and experiences as ways of learning?
One of the most crucial responsibilities of leadership is creating a culture that rewards those who lift not just our stock prices but our aspirations as well.”
“It is easy to be critical of the micromanaging many managers resorts to, yet we must acknowledge the rock and the hard place we go often place them between. If they have to choose between meeting a deadline and some less well defined “nurture” their people, they will pick the deadline every time. We tell ourselves that we will devote more time to our people if we, in turn, are given more slack in the schedule or budget, but somehow the requirements of the job always eat up the slack, resulting in increased pressure with even less room for error. Given these realities, managers typically want two things: (1) for everything to be tightly controlled, and (2) to appear to be in control.
But when control is the goal, it can negatively affect other parts of your culture. I’ve known many managers who hate to be surprised in meetings. Many workplaces, it is a sign of disrespect someone or surprises a manager with new information in front of other people. But what does this mean in practice? It means that there are pre-meetings before meetings, and the meetings begin to take on the pro forma tone. It means wasted time. It means that the employees who work with these people walk on eggshells. It means that fear runs rampant.”
“Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.”
“When managers explain what the plan is without giving the reasons for it, people wonder what the “real” agenda is. There may be no hidden agenda, but you’ve succeeded in implying that there is one. Discussing the thought processes behind solutions aims the focus on the solutions, not on second-guessing. When we are honest, people know it.”
“As managers, we all start off with a certain amount trepidation. When we are new to the position, we can imagine what the job is in order to get our arms around it, then we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we “should” be.
A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well.”
“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.”
“When someone hatches and original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in these vulnerable state, it is exposed to a naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be faces of not-so-greatness.”
“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.
I see this over and over again in other companies: a subversion takes place in which streamlining the process or increasing production supplants the ultimate goal, with each person or group thinking they are doing the right thing – when, in fact, they have a strayed off course. When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature.”
“Success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end.”
“In an unhealthy culture, each group believes that if they are objectives trump the goals of the other groups, the company will be better off. In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognize the importance of balancing competing desires – they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win. Their interaction with one another – the push and pull that occurs naturally when talented people are given clear goals – yields the balance we seek. But that only happens if they understand that achieving balance is a central goal of the company.
While the idea of balance always sounds good, it doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of what it means to actually achieve balance. Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness. To my mind, the more I curate examples of balance come from sports, such as when the basketball player spins around the defender, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments.”
“Every creative organization is an ecosystem. ” You need all the seasons. You need storms. To view lack of conflict has optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There is no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time – if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night – all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up.
The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive.
You know, it can’t only be sunlight.” (Brad Bird)
“A good manager must always be on the lookout for areas in which balance has been lost.”
“Managers of creative enterprises must
hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.”
“Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.”
“We know that the best ideas emerge when we have made it safe to work through problems. Remember: people are more important than ideas.”
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But
the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Change and randomness
“People want to hang on to things that work. You figured something out, it works, so you keep doing it – this is what an organization that is committed to learning does. And as we become successful, our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change.
Moreover, it is precisely because of the inevitability of change that people want to hold on to what they know. Unfortunately, we often have little ability to distinguish between what works and is worth hanging on to and what is holding us back and worth discarding.”
“To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised.
Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply.
I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”
“If people are enjoying the word you have created, they will forgive little inconsistencies, if they notice them at all.”
“I can send to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like in the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I have learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad.
Having a finite list of problems it is much better that having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”
“Some of the best ideas come out of joking around, which only comes with you (or the boss) give yourself permission to do it.”
“Creativity: unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.”
“Self-interest guides opposition to change, but lack of self-awareness fuels it even more.”
What can we do about it? Practice mindfulness!
“The problem is that our brains aren’t wired to think about randomness. Instead, we are built to look for patterns in sights, sounds, interactions, and events in the world. This mechanism is so ingrained that we see patterns even when they aren’t there. There is a subtle reason for this: We can store patterns and conclusions in our heads, but we cannot store randomness itself. Randomness is a concept that defies categorization; by definition, it comes out of nowhere and can’t be anticipated. While we intellectually accept that’s it exists, our brains cons completely grasp it, so it has less impact on our consciousness than things we can see, measure, and categorize.”
“As we trying to learn from the past, we form patterns of thinking based on our experiences, not realizing that the things that happened have an unfair advantage over the things that didn’t. When a bad thing happens, people will draw conclusions that might include conspiracy or forces acting against them or, conversely, if a good thing happens, that they are brilliant and deserving. But these kinds of misperceptions ultimately deceive us.”
“If you haven’t done the work of teasing apart what is random and what you have intentionally set in motion, you will be overly influenced by the analysis of outside observers, which is often oversimplified.”
“In general, we seek what we think are simple explanations for events in our lives because we believe the simpler something is, the more fundamental – the more true – it is. But
when it comes to randomness, our desire for simplicity can mislead us. Not everything is simple, and trying to force it to be to misrepresent reality.
So what if we oversimplify in order to get through our days? So what if we hold tight to familiar ideas that give us the answer we crave? What does it matter? In my view, it matters a lot. In creative endeavours, we must face the unknown. But if do so with blinders on – if we shut out reality in the interest of keeping things simple – we will not excel. The mechanisms that keep us safe from unknown threats have been hardwired into us since before our ancestors were fighting off saber-toothed tigers with the sticks. But when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality. How, then, do we make friends with the random and unknowable? How do we get more comfortable with our lack of control? It helps to understand just how pervasive randomness is.”
“Since we aren’t good at modeling random events, we tend to use the mental facilities that we are good at and apply them to our view of the world, if someone such an application is demonstrably wrong.”
“Sometimes a big event happens that changes everything. What it does, it tends to affirm the human tendency to treat big events as fundamentally different from smaller ones. That’s a problem, inside companies. When we put setbacks into two buckets – the “Business as usual” bucket in the “Holy cow” bucket – and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble. We become so caught up in our big problems that we ignore the little ones, failing to realize that some of our small problems will have a long-term consequences – and are, therefore, big problems in the making. What’s needed, in my view, is to
approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions, because they are, in fact, self-similar.”
“When you begin to grasp that big and little problems are structured similarly, then that helps you maintain a calmer perspective. Moreover, it helps you remain open to an important reality: If all our careful planning cannot prevent problems, then
our best method of response is to enable employees at every level to own the problems and have the confidence to fix them.
We want people to feel like they can take steps to solve problems without asking permission.
A culture and that allows everyone, no matter their position, to stop the assembly line, both figuratively and literally, maximizes the creative engagement of people who wants to help. In other words, we must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.”
“Most people grasp the need to set priorities; they put the biggest problem at the top, with smaller problems beneath them. There are simply too many small problems to consider them all. So they draw a horizontal line between which they will not tread, directing all their energies to those above the line. I believe there is another approach:
If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed.
Mistakes will still be made, but in my experience, they are fewer and farther between and are caught at an earlier stage.
As I’ve said, you don’t always know how big a problem is when you first encounter it. It may seem small, but it also might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. if you have the tendency to put problems in buckets, you may not know which bucket to put it in. The difficulty is that we prioritize problems by size and the importance, frequently ignoring small problems because of their abundance. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small.
The key is to create a response structure that matches the problem structure.”
“Everyone says they want to hire excellent people, but in truth we don’t really know, at first, who will rise to make a difference. I believe in putting in place a framework for finding potential, then nurturing talent and excellence, believing that many will rise, while knowing that not all win.”
“I know that a lot of our successes came because we have pure intentions and great talent, and we did a lot of things right, but I also believe that
attributing our successes solely to our own intelligence, without acknowledging the role of accidental events, diminishes us.
We must acknowledge the random events that went our way, because acknowledging our good fortune – and not telling ourselves that everything we did was some stroke of genius – lets us make more realistic assessments and decisions.
The existence of luck also reminds us that our activities are less repeatable.
Since change is inevitable, the question is: Do you act to stop it and try to protect yourself from it, or do you become the master of change by accepting it and being open to it? My view, of course, is that working with change is what creativity is about.”
“If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”
“If we accept that what we see and know is inevitably flawed, we must strive to find ways to heighten that awareness – to in fill the gaps, if you will. I, for one, cannot claim perfectly clear-eyed view, but I do believe that
making room in my head for the certainty that, like it or not, song problems will always be hidden from me has made me a better manager.”
“Imagine a door that, when you swing it open, reveals the universe of all that you do not and cannot know. It’ vast, that universe – far larger then we are even conscious of. But ignorance is not necessarily bliss. This universe of unknowns stuff will intrude in our lives and activities, so we have no choice but to deal with it. One of the ways to do that is to try to understand the many reasons why something may be difficult or impossible to see. To gain this understanding requires identifying multiple levels of the unknown, from the trivial to the fundamental.”
“We all know that people bring their best selves to interactions with their bosses and save their lesser moments for their peers, spouses, or therapists. And yet, so many managers aren’t aware of it when it’s happening. It simply doesn’t occur to them that’s after they get promoted to a leadership position, no one is going to come out and sa” Now that you are a manager, I can no longer be as candid with you.” Instead, many new leaders assume, wrongly, but they’re access to information is unchanged. That is just one example of how hidden-ness affects a manager’s ability to lead.”
“How does a manager differentiates between a team player and a person who is merely skilled at telling the boss what he or she wants to hear? A manager might rely on other people to alert him or her to a particular employee’s lack of authenticity, but many are loath to tattle or to sound envious. The leaders view, then, is obstructed by these people who are skilled at figuring out what the leader wants. When viewed from a single vantage point, a full picture of the dynamics of any group is elusive. While we are all aware of these kinds of behaviours because we see them in others, most of us do not realize that we distort our own view of the world, largely because we think we see more than we actually do.”
“Complex environments are, by definition, too complicated for any one person to grasp fully. Yet many managers, afraid of appearing to not be in control, believe that they have to know everything – or at least act like they do.
So my colleagues know more than I do about what’s going on in any given department at any given moment. On the other hand, I know more about issues that people working in production do not. Each of us, then, draws conclusions based on incomplete pictures. It would be wrong for me to assume that my limited view is necessarily better.
If we can agree that it’s hard, if not impossible, to get a complete picture of what is going on at any given time in any given company, it becomes even harder when you are successful. That’s because success convinces us that we are doing things the right way. There’s nothing quite as effective, when comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.
When faced with complexity, it is reassuring to tell ourselves that we can uncover and understand every facet of the problem if we just try hard enough. But that’s a fallacy. The better approach, I believe, is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of the complex environment and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints.
If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.”
“Openness is only possible in a culture that acknowledges its own blind spots.
It’s only possible when managers understand that others see problems they don’t – and that they also see solutions.”
“To be truly humble, leaders must first understand how many of the factors that shape their lives and businesses are – and will always be – out of sight.”
“Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event then a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly – hindsight being 20-20 and all – we often aren’t open to knowing more.”
“Basically, we either don’t perceive or have to ignore most of what is outside of us. However, we do have to function, so simultaneously, the brain fills in the details we miss. We fill in or make up a great deal more than we think we do. What I’m really talking about here are our mental models, which plays a major role in our perception of the world.”
“We spend all our lives embodied, environmentally situated, with others. We are not merely recipients of external influences but are creatures built to receive influences that we ourselves enact; we are do not make a late coupled with the world, not separate from it.”
Alva Noe (Philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley)
“Most of us walk around thinking that our view is best – probably because it is the only one we really know. You think the fact that we all have major misunderstandings with people at times would clue us in to the reality that so incredibly much is hidden from us. But, no. We have to learn, over and over again, that the perceptions and experiences of others are vastly different than our own.
When humans see things that challenge our mental models, we tend not just to resist them but to ignore them.”
“Our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like models weather forecasters used to predict the weather. But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.
The key is knowing the difference.”
“When we are making a movie, the movie doesn’t exist yet. We are not uncovering it or discovering it; it’s not as if it resides somewhere and is just waiting into be found. There is no movie. We are making decisions, one by one, to create it. In a fundamental way, the movie is hidden from us. I know this can feel overwhelming. There is a reason that writers talking about the terror of the blank page and painters shudder at the sight of an empty canvas. It’s extremely difficult to create something out of nothing, especially when you consider that much of what you’re trying to realize is hidden, at least at first.”
“While the allure of safety and predictability is strong, achieving true balance means engaging in activities whose outcomes and payoffs are not yet apparent. The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.
Let us return to the metaphor of the door. On one side is everything we see and know – the world as we understand it. On site is everything we can’t see and don’t know – unsolved problems, unexpressing emotions, unrealized possibilities so innumerable that imagining them is unconceivable. This side, then, is not an alternate reality but something even harder to fathom: that which has not yet been created.”
“No matter how intensely we desire certainty, we should understand that whether because of our limits or randomness or future unknowable confluences of events, something will inevitably come, unbidden, through that door. Some of it will be uplifting and inspiring, and some of it will be disastrous.
We all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively. What stands in our way are these hidden barriers – the misconceptions and assumptions that impede us without our knowing it.”
Broadening our view
“As more people are added to any group, there is an inexorable drift toward inflexibility.”
“When filmmakers, industrial designers, software designers, or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art.
Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
Even though copying what’s come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe – to succeed with minimal risk – can infect not just individuals but also entire companies. If we sense that our structures are rigid, inflexible, or bureaucratic, we must bust them open – without destroying ourselves in the process.”
“You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar.”
“Many of our limits are imposed not by our internal processes but by external realities. Those things, we can’t control. But the limits we impose internally, if deployed correctly, can be a tool to force people to amend the way they are working and, sometimes, to invent another way. The very concept of a limit implies that you can’t do everything you want – so we must think of smarter ways to work. Let’s be honest: Many of us don’t make this kind of adjustment until we are required to. Limits force us to rethink how we are working and push us to new heights of creativity.”
“Instead of asking “How do we prevent our people from screwing up?”, you should ask yourself: “How do we enable our people to solve problems?” My rule of thumb is that anytime we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.”
“In most companies, you have to justify so much of what you do – to prepare for quarterly earnings statements if the company is publicly traded or, if it is not, to build support for your decisions. I believe, however, but you should not be required to justify everything. We must always leave the door open for the unexpected. Scientific research operates in this way – when you embark on an experiment, you don’t know if you will achieve a breakthrough. Chances are, you won’t. But nevertheless, you may stumble on a piece of the puzzle along way – a glimpse, if you will, into the unknown.”
“A trained artist who sees a chair is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their “recognizer” function tells them what it is supposed to be.
Artists have learned to employ this ways of seeing does not mean they don’t also see what we see. They do.
They just see more because they learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions.
They have added some observational skills to their toolboxes.”
Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional.
“The “law of subverting successful approaches” – once you have hit on something that works, don’t expect it to work again, because attendees will know how to manipulate it the second time around.”
“I like data because it is neutral – there are no value judgments, only facts. That allows people to discuss the issues raised by data less emotionally than they might an anecdotal experience.
I prefer to think of data as one way of seeing, one of many tools we can use to look for what’s hidden. If within data alone provides answers, that we have misapplied the tool. It is important to get this right. Some people swing to the extremes either having no interest in the data or believing that the facts of measurement alone should drive our management. Either extreme can lead to false conclusions.
A large portion of what we manage can’t be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences. The problem comes when people think the data paints a full picture, leading them to be ignore what they can’t see. Here is my approach:
Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do.
And at least every once in a while, make time to take a step back and think about what you are doing.”
“We begin life, as children, being open to the ideas of others because we need to be open to learn. Most of what children encounter, after all, are things they’ve never seen before. The child has no choice but to embrace the new. If this openness is so wonderful, however, why do we lose it as we grow up? Where, along the way, do we turn from the wide-eyed child into the adult who fears surprises and has all the answers and seeks to control alla outcomes?
When a new company is formed, its founders must have a startup mentality – a beginners’ mind, open to everything because, well, what do they have to lose? But when that company becomes successful, its leaders often cast off that startup mentality because they tell themselves, the have figured out what to do. They don’t want to be beginners anymore. That may be human nature, but I believe it’s a part of our nature that should be resisted. By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.
Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them – and, more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our awareness, trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention. It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something. As the composer Philip Glass once said,
‘The real issue is not how do you find your voice, but…getting rid of that damn thing’.”
“Many of us have a romantic idea about how creativity happens: A lone visionary conceives of the film or a product in a flash of insight. Then that visionary leads a team of people through hardship to finally deliver on that great promise. The truth is, this isn’t my experience at all. In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way,
creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint.
You have to pace yourself.
As we forge ahead, while we imagine what might be, we must rely on our guiding principles, our intentions, and our goals – not on being able to see and react to what’s coming before it happens. My old friend from the University of Utah, Alan Kay, expressed it well when he said ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’.”
“How do we go about creating the unmade future? I believe that all we can do is foster the optimal conditions in which it – whatever “it” is – can in emerge and flourish. This is where real confidence comes in. Not the confidence that we know exactly what to do at all times but the confidence that, together, we will figure it out.”
“Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking. And that means developing a mental model that sustains you.”
“I’ve told you about Andrew’s belief that we will all be happier and more productive if we hurry up and fail. For him, moving quickly is a plus because it prevents him from getting stuck worrying about whether his chosen course of action is the wrong one. Instead, he favours being decisive, then forgiving yourself if your initial decision proves misguided.
“People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you’ve effed up. It’s a huge lesson: include people in your problems, not just your solutions.”
“If one looks at creativity as a resource that we continually draw upon to make something from nothing, then our fear stems from the need to make the nonexistent come into being. As we’ve discussed, people often try to overcome this fear by simply repeating what has worked in the past. That leads nowhere – or, more accurately, it leads in the opposite direction of originality. The trick is to use our skills and knowledge not to duplicate but to invent.”
“While I started this chapter by insisting that what moviegoers see on the screen does not emerge fully formed from some visionary’s brain, I have to allow for this idea: having faith that the elements of a movie are all there for us to find often sustains us during the search.”
“The most important thing about a mental model is that it enables whoever relies on it to get their job – whatever it is – done. The uncreated is a vast, empty space. This emptiness is so scary that most hold on to what they know, making minor adjustments to what they understand, unable to move on to something unknown. To enter that place of fear, and to fill that empty space, we need all the help we can get.”
“I’ve heard people referred to Pixar’s production group as a finely tuned locomotive that they would love the chance to drive. What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position – that driving the train is the way to shape the companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.”
Ed Catmull here talks about Kelly McGonigal experiments (University of Montréal, 2010)
“Two groups – one made up of experienced Zen meditators, the other of non-meditators – we’re given the exact same type of pain experience: a thermal heat source strapped to one calf. What researchers discovered by looking at the brain imaging was that even though the experienced meditators weren’t actively meditating in the course of the experiment, the threshold for pain was much higher than the non-meditators’. The meditators’ brains where paying attention to the pain, but because they knew how to turn off the inner chatter, they were better able to tolerate pain than those who did not practice meditation.
Next, McGonigal cited a similar study done at Wake Forest University that focused on a group of brand new meditators who’d undergone only four days of training. When they were brought into the laboratory and given the same pain test, some where able to tolerate greater levels of pain than others. Why? The temptation might be to surmise that these people were simply quick studies in the art of meditation, that they were better at it than others. Brain and enjoy showed, however, that in fact their minds where doing the opposite of what experienced meditators’ minds do. Instead of paying attention to the moment they were in, McGonigal said, “they were inhibiting sensory information – somehow shifting with their attention to ignore what was happening in the present moment. And that was giving rise to less suffering: inhibiting the awareness rather than carefully attending to it.”
I found this fascinating – and analogous to behaviour I’d witnessed as a manager. McGonigal was talking about the brain’s tendency to suppress problems instead of facing them head-on. What makes this even more difficult is that
the people who were suppressing thought that they were doing the same thing as the people who were addressing the problem.
It is sobering to think that in trying to be mindful, some of us accidentally end up being exactly the opposite. We deflect and ignore. And for a while, at least, this behaviour can even yield good results. But in the experiments McGonigal cited, people who made the practice of becoming mindful didn’t ignore the problem at hand – in this case, the painful heat source strapped to their legs. They saw and felt it for what it was but quieted their reaction to it – the brain’s natural tendency to amplify by overthinking – and thus coped much better.”
The power of acknowledging problems instead of setting rules that seek to suppress them. Here’s the scientific evidence.
“What is the point of hiring people if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?”
“A creative team is open and responsive and, most important, able to move the focus away from the notion of the “right” way to fix the problem to actually fixing the problem – a subtle but important distinction.”
“Fixing things is an ongoing, incremental process. Creative people must accept that challenges are never ceased, failure can’t be avoided, and “vision” is often an illusion. But they must also feel safe – always – to speak their minds.”
“The future is not a destination – it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when, inevitably, we stray.”