Archive for July, 2014


How do you generate creativity in teams and individuals? What can you do to stop smart people from making decisions that take your company off the rails? How do you sustain success without becoming formulaic and stale?

Pixar boss Ed Catmull constantly recycles these questions to keep his multi-award winning business at the cutting edge of the movie industry.

The company provides rich pickings for students of business management; its staff have no contracts, stability is not a goal and failure, while not exactly welcomed, is recognized as a consequence of trying to do something new.

It has the formula for success bottled and corked. How does the leadership team do it? And, more importantly, how do they keep doing it?

It certainly hasn’t been an overnight success and Catmull acknowledges the debt owed to Steve Jobs who kept the company going in the early days by pumping in more than $50m of his own money.

Even Jobs’ enthusiasm had limits, he recalls, and cites how he tried to sell Pixar on three occasions, including once to Microsoft who offered $90m when he was seeking $120m. Who knows what the outcome might have been had that deal gone through?

It was Toy Story that provided the company’s breakthrough moment and subsequent hits like hit Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, and A Bug’s Life are now as deeply implanted in popular culture as were the Disney classics that were the inspiration for Catmull to try making computer-animated movies himself.

Bizarrely, it was the very success of Toy Story that opened Catmull’s eyes to a deep rift in the company – one that challenged his management style, provoked a period of deep introspection and became the catalyst for the rejuvenation of his career.

While gearing up for the company’s second film, A Bug’s Life, he learned that those who had worked on Toy Story had found clashes between the creative and production departments to be “a nightmare” and were reluctant to sign on to work on another film at Pixar.

Production departments tasked with making sure the movie was delivered on time and on budget were seen by artists and technical staff as interfering micromanagers and were characterized as so much sand in the gears.

“I was floored. How had we missed this? My door had always been open!” says Catmull.

The answer is codified in one of his guiding principles: “The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.”

It’s hardly the stuff of bumper sticker wisdom but it is the distillation of a much deeper period of contemplation about why, over a five-year period, not one production manager had come forward to express anger at the internal conflicts.

In the world of film, crew members who complained tended not to get future work so people simply kept their mouths shut. There was also a sense that they were involved in a groundbreaking project and the good parts outweighed the bad so it was worth putting up with.

As he explored the issue further he also came to understand that hidden fears course through all businesses breaking new ground and that: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

By bringing down barriers that forced staff to go through “proper channels” first, Catmull unleashed a wave of change that brought people together and spurred action. Open communication helped resolve production snags, gave individuals a greater sense of responsibility and bolstered their sense of a unified purpose.

At the same time, he also recognized that “a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline could destroy itself if left unchecked” so he made changes that reinforced his notion of work-life balance being good for employees and good for the company.

But more than anything else it was his requirement for absolute candor from staff that laid the foundation on which the culture of creativity is built.

Through regular Brainstrust meetings, Pixar’s people are charged with rooting out mediocrity and driving excellence, a process that is simple enough: Put smart, passionate people in a room and get them to thrash out problems in an atmosphere that requires frank exchanges of views.

The hard part is managing the dynamics that go with the gatherings, keeping the focus on the end product, not on personalities, and the need for constant vigilance to make the discussions effective.

At the core of Catmull’s business philosophy is his belief that trust cannot exist without candor and that without trust, creative collaboration is impossible.

“You can’t eliminate the blocks to candor once and for all. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, or retaliating or being retaliated against – they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think they’ve been vanquished. And when they do, you must address them squarely.”

There are, of course, a great many other components in Pixar’s success story, such as:

  • Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
  • It is not a manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.
  • The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.

But it’s careful listening, open communications and an atmosphere that encourages relentless improvement that shapes Pixar’s template for success.

Creativity Inc, Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace


boringWe’ve all been there, clustered around a table, listening to someone read from a PowerPoint presentation and wondering why we’re there when we have a million more pressing things to do.

Conducted in the right way meetings are vital to any successful business, but all too often they’re ill-thought out, badly run and a massive time sump.

Advance briefing documents often go unread, key people arrive late and the attention of those who are there is distracted by constant smartphone and tablet browsing.

The bigger the company, the more dysfunctional it becomes. It’s not uncommon for senior leaders to spend their days in continuous, back-to-back meetings with little or no time to reflect on issues, and no chance to engage in strategic and creative thinking.

It shouldn’t be like this. We’re all too busy to have our time wasted attending nebulous gatherings with fruitless outcomes. So how do you go about running a successful meeting?

1 Decide on the purpose of the meeting and don’t drift: The first question to be answered is: Does a meeting need to be held at all? And the second is: What are you trying to achieve? If it’s meant purely for sharing information, can it be communicated another way – by phone, by email, or face to face? If you decide to go ahead, then set an agenda in advance and stick to it.

2 Limit the duration and keep to the timings This is a tricky one since timing depends on the nature of the meeting: Do you need to reach a decision on a thorny issue? Are you looking to generate new ideas? Do you need to allocate tasks and deadlines to progress projects? The longer the meeting goes on, the more concentration levels and engagement will flag. Don’t go beyond an hour, allocate times to specific items and make sure you start and finish on time.

3 Decide who really, really needs to be there This is one of the hardest things to get right amid the sensitivities of office politics where meetings define groups and also carry hierarchical baggage. Leave people out and you run the risk of them feeling excluded or marginalized; Bring them in on issues that are tangential and unnecessary and they’ll see it as a huge waste of time. Keeping the headcount small makes it easier to control, but a larger group can bring wider perspectives and greater diversity. Only bring in the people who can actively contribute to the issues at hand; the remainder can be informed or given feedback by other means.

4 Go dark and turn off tech It’s not often that you’ll want to find a basement room with no signal but it’s probably the only way to stop people fidgeting with smartphones, phablets and tablets. If you want attendees to give their full attention then you’re going to have to insist. Good luck with that!

5 Lead the agenda but don’t dominate As the person who called the meeting and framed its purpose, your role is to elicit the thoughts and ideas from those around you and keep things businesslike. Don’t stifle discussion just because you disagree – it’s important for people to feel that they can speak up. Do keep the focus on issues, not personality clashes, and rein in domineering individuals to give more reticent members a chance to have their say. If conversations head off topic then acknowledge them as valid but not for the framework of the current gathering.

6 Keep a record of what was agreed and any action points Ideally, discussions lead to outcomes and it’s up to you to allocate follow-up tasks for individuals to complete. Sometimes people come away from meetings with differing views of what was said and a quick summary with a list of action points can clear the fog: X to do Y by such and such a date, is unequivocal. A brief overview is also useful to circulate to those who were unable to attend or as wider background material for those with a more peripheral interest.

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has built the company’s meetings culture around a briefing memo and 30 minutes of silent reading.

The rationale is that communicating thoughts in full sentences and paragraphs requires presenters to think more deeply and “forces a deeper clarity” than simply running through a slide deck.

The 30-minute read-through ensures that everyone in attendance is fully conversant with what will be discussed in the meeting.

Brad Stone, author of the excellent book about the company – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon – also references Bezos’ two pizza rule that the meeting should be small enough in size that the attendees can be fed from two pizzas.

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, strives for candor in his meetings believing it to be a vital tool in rooting out mediocrity and achieving excellence.

Saying it is easy, achieving it is another thing. As he points out: “Societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions.”

Other factors for not speaking out include not wanting to appear stupid, not wanting to embarrass yourself and not wanting to appear to have all the answers.

“The more people there are in the room, the more pressure there is to perform well. Strong and confident people can intimidate their colleagues, subconsciously signaling they aren’t interested in negative feedback or criticism that challenges their thinking.”

Catmull states that “without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”

Instilling this ethic into your company and its culture is a much bigger topic and one that is discussed at length in his book Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration

What’s the meetings culture like where you work? What are your best and worst company meeting experiences? What recommendations would you make for them to be a success?

No ordinary time (2)No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

Two extraordinary people, a pivotal point in history and an expert storyteller combine to deliver a riveting account of the convulsive forces that created modern America.

If you haven’t read this book yet, you should, and even if you have it’s one to consider reading again, it’s so good.

From the New Deal to the dark days of the Second World War, Doris Kearns Goodwin takes us to the heart of the White House and the tensions, rivalries and conflicts among key players of the period.

From her painstaking research we get fully-fleshed characters wrestling with enormous issues while trying to balance swift action with political expediency. Isolationism, deep-seated racism, poverty and rigid social strictures are shown as part of the fabric of life in the US in the pre-war period.

FDR had the foresight to see what was coming, even when advisers counselled against getting involved, but shifting the nation’s mindset and the economy to a war footing was an enormous risk and a huge challenge. Pearl Harbor was a defining moment; public opinion rapidly came around, but FDR was on board long before that.

His relationship with Churchill and their mutual admiration is closely chronicled and a delight to read. Amid the anecdotes there are several ‘what if’ moments that make you wonder how the world might be had they not seen eye to eye on key positions.

But it’s the intricacy of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor that holds center stage – it’s both touching and tragic. They’re a couple with a deep, yet unfulfilled, love for each other who share a profound mutual respect and eagerness to please, but whose marriage is mired in melancholy.

Goodwin gives us the ultimate insider’s view of the relationship with multiple perspectives on the hurts, the jealousies, the slights and the misunderstandings. We see the intermingling of their public and private lives, their faults and their frailties, their insecurities and their ambitions.

They emerge as different halves of a complementary whole – an extraordinary couple from an extraordinary time who unleashed changes which continue to reverberate and shape the world in which we live.