Building environments of trust
I’m only five chapters into Creativity, Inc. by Pixar found Ed Catmull, but I’m thoroughly gripped and learning far more than I anticipated. Anyone who is passionate about creativity and-or leadership and management should grab a copy and start devouring it. The book is loaded with wisdom from someone who is at the helm of one of the most creative companies on the planet.
It would be tempting for the founder of such a successful company to simply tell the story of all the successes. So far, Catmull has been more interested in describing the mistakes and failures they’ve learnt from. It’s an honest, transparent account that takes you behind-the-scenes at Pixar—and there’s not attempt to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses.
As Catmull himself says, at some stage in the process of making their movies, each and everyone of them has truly sucked. The challenge is creating an environment where the right people can turn around the movie so that it doesn’t suck. And people—not ideas—are the most important key, according to Catmull. For people and ideas to truly thrive though requires candour.
Candour is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candour leads to dysfunctional environments…Candour could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”
There are so many reasons for people not to be candid. Fear of the repercussions—e.g. rejection, mockery, demotion—is typically high up on the list of those reasons. The question every leader and manager needs to ask themselves is: does the culture of my team or organisation make it easy for people to share frankly and openly what they think? Is it an environment where candour is actively rewarded—not just verbally encouraged?
For a good idea to become something great upon implementation, it will require great people, doing great work, in an environment where candour is welcomed by everyone and embraced as a central part of the creative process. Constructive critism is essential to the process of making anything better. It doesn’t matter whether we are making a movie, designing a website, running a department, or leading a church; if we want the best people and the best ideas to reach their potential, we need to lead the way in creating a culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up.
Too often leaders feel like they have to know everything and be the source of all the best ideas. Instead leaders need to accept that ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. The role of the leader is to nurture an organisational culture where creativity and ideation can thrive throughout. But creative ideas aren’t enough. It’s about taking an idea and turning it into reality. And for that to happen well, we require no end of iteration and truth-telling. Average implementation of an idea is easy. Average is what thrives when there’s no candour and frank talking. Excellence requires something more. Excellence stems from a culture where no one is afraid to contribute their voice in order to make something better.
Pixar has created fourteen consecutive box office hit movies because it won’t settle for average. No matter how much extra work they create for themselves, they won’t settle for anything less than the very best they can do. But this doesn’t just happen by accident. Through trial and (a lot) of error, they have kept plugging away at shaping their organisational culture to ensure excellence is always the end result. And at the heart of this is a willingness to always hear and listen to the truth—no matter how painful and no matter who it comes from. That’s something we can all learn from.