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6 things I learned from Pixar about fostering a creative culture

Revital Vainerman Ziv UX Lead, HP Software

Creativity, Inc., a highly rated and best-selling book by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, has some valuable insights on fostering a culture of creativity in business organizations. We've all seen that encouraging innovation is a major focus—if not the biggest focus—of successful companies. From Google's policy of allowing 20 percent of employees' time to be used for their own project ideas to Adobe's kickbox program, smart organizations remove barriers to innovation.

I enjoyed Catmull's book so much that I was inspired to apply some of his practices in my own software testing and development organization. I've distilled the key insights and practices from his book here. Each section begins with a quote from Catmull in the book. Hopefully, they will be as motivating to you as they were to me when I first read them.

1. Encourage straight talk

"If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem."

According to Catmull, this idea is the core of Pixar’s magic. Straight talk is about putting product quality first, and that requires putting egos aside and speaking honestly. Although it sounds simple, it's one of the hardest things to implement. Employees might have an understandable fear of saying something they think is stupid and looking bad; they might be concerned about offending someone or getting into a conflict; or they might be wary of stepping on the ego of a more senior colleague. All of these factors can get in the way of open communication.

Pixar approached the challenge by creating what it calls a braintrust, which is a platform for “safe zone” meetings. In these meetings, participants from various areas of expertise are invited to review a specific project while leaving their titles at the door. They are encouraged to speak up as equals and give their honest feedback and thoughts. The purpose of each meeting is to promote the product rather than the participants. Their feedback can address what isn’t clear or anything that seems like it's wrong or missing. However, this feedback doesn’t have to include a proposed solution. Feedback that does include a proposed fix is viewed as one of several recommendations. In the end, the facilitator can decide what to take from it.

In my job as a User Experience team lead at a large enterprise, I work on several projects at any given time and come across many opportunities to encourage straight talk. I often find people discussing issues with products or processes among themselves in the corridors or around the watercooler, but everyone would benefit if they made their voices heard. We’ve already started encouraging open talk by teaching managers and employees how to give and receive feedback (see next section). Our next step will be to hold braintrust sessions to discuss in a neutral environment a specific product, process, strategy, or anything else that we need to talk about.

2. Learn how to receive feedback

"A lot of people believe they know what's right and can't listen to advice."

People are often emotionally bound to their own ideas, and when it comes to defending the idea, reason can give way to defensiveness and emotion. Catmull stresses the need to remember that our ideas are not a reflection of ourselves. Before rushing to defend our idea, we must put our egos and emotions aside, and try to listen to feedback even if we don’t agree with it. As Catmull says, receiving feedback is a skill that can be learned if we understand that the film, not the filmmaker, is under the microscope. Every piece of honest feedback can lead us to a deeper understanding and new ideas.

In my organization, I’m working on encouraging feedback from three different directions:

  1. Top down: We are working on courses that will be included in our management training to teach different techniques for leading brainstorming sessions, and on how to listen to input without being defensive. These are skills that can be learned, although it does require practice. As our managers encourage their teams and colleagues to provide their inputs and insights, we are moving in the right direction. Instead of a culture where the most important opinion is the HiPPO’s (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), we’re moving toward a culture in which participants see managers as facilitators who encourage a wide array of sources, functions, and job levels to share their insights without judgement.

  2. Bottom up: We also need sessions for employees to practice giving feedback without hesitation or apology, but in a constructive way. We also want everyone to learn how to brainstorm effectively and efficiently with their colleagues and managers.

  3. Parallel: Create and encourage a culture of innovation through collaboration. In my organization, we have an online program that encourages employees to contribute and suggest ideas for new products or enhancements. These suggestions are rated by the employees themselves and are then mediated by an innovation committee. We’ve been doing this for the past few years at my company, and the highest-scoring suggestions go into an incubation mode, which means that management will give them the time and support to form teams and work on their projects during company time. The results have been great. I myself serve as a "creativity agent coach," which means I mentor innovation teams to help them refine their ideas and provide insight from additional angles.

3. Collaborate with other experts

"Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere."

At Pixar, decision-making gets better when team members draw on collective knowledge that comes from people with a wide variety of expertise. This gives the team different points of view, widens its perspective, and provides it with more ideas and approaches to think about. Engaging employees and managers from all levels of seniority ensures two things:

  • People from all ranks become stakeholders in solving the problem.
  • There’s an optimal combination of the big picture and little details to enable solutions that are both strategic and realistic.

We started to adopt this process by pulling selected developers, testers, and writers into the ideation process or into focus meetings, even if they were not directly involved with the project or process. We encourage everyone to give constructive feedback without hesitation or apology. The feedback can be about the process, the product strategy, the product attributes, and much more. We found that this feedback improves our products, and just as important, the team members understand that they are truly a part of the process, which motivates them to contribute even more. As our product managers see the benefits from the process, they engage other parts of the organization to provide even more feedback, creating a positive cycle.

4. Don’t fear failure

“The reality is—new ideas are fragile. They don't look good.”

Catmull and his team don’t wait for things to be perfect before sharing them. They share early and often, so they can get feedback into the process before things are baked. This not only enhances what they are working on, but can also provide an early indication that they are on the wrong track and need to make some adjustments before continuing.

Fear of failure can often get in the way of delivering outstanding creative products, so an organizational culture should encourage taking risks as an activity that can move things forward. There will always be errors to fix, but if you wait until the end of the process to deal with them, the cost of fixing, as well as the cost of lost creativity, could be too great.

Other successful organizations also believe in mitigating the fear of failure. To quote Elon Musk, "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." It’s not easy to let go of the fear of failure and criticism, but as you and your colleagues learn how to approach feedback with an open mind, you’ll find that the benefits outweigh the discomfort.

5. Hire brilliant employees

“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.”

Always try to hire people who are better than you in some way, even if they seem like a potential threat to your own position. This will lead to greater collaboration because, as Catmull says, brilliant people prefer working in brilliant teams. Not only will talented and ambitious people do great work, but they will actually make you look good and help you move forward, since you’ll have more time. They will also keep you on your toes as a manager, making sure your own output measures up and you continue developing.

To ensure that your organization consistently hires great and talented people without hesitation, emphasize this in your managers’ training course. It's important to have a mix of industry veterans and young, creative newcomers that you encourage.

6. Facilitate, don’t just manage

“Rather than getting caught up in a problem, I always wanted to look [at the team] to see if everyone is saying what they think. When these dynamics are working, you will solve your problem every time and do remarkable things.”

According to Catmull, the manager’s role is to safeguard the dynamics of her or his team, and to allow for all the things I listed above to happen. He encourages managers to sit back and really look at what’s going on in the room, how people interact, and how they can optimize the culture so that creativity is truly unleashed.

When your team consists of brilliant people who are not afraid to speak their mind, the manager’s role as a facilitator becomes so much easier. Just wait a few seconds before giving them your solution; look and listen, then aid the team’s communication. The brainstorming sessions I mentioned above will also enhance the team's communication skills.

A humanistic way of working

I strongly identify with Catmull’s brilliant and humanistic way of working. Every company can benefit from encouraging managers to hire great employees, and then by empowering those employees to take risks, share their thoughts, and allow themselves to be driven by their creative passions. This culture drives more enjoyment and fulfillment at work, fosters respect and open communication, and leads to great results.

Image credit: Flickr

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