Fostering Creative Culture

creativity

Having been deeply involved in conceptualising new products, leading execution and go-to-market efforts, I often have struggled on how to build a sustainable culture that promotes creativity at its core and at the same time balancing the commercial aspects of the business.

Ed Catmull in his book “Creativity Inc” lays out multiple principles and tools that he developed while leading Pixar.  Pixar, as you might know, is the ground-breaking company behind movies like “Toy Story”, “Finding Dory”, etc.

And before I dive into some of these principles and tools, I have to say  Ed’s book as been the most engaging business book I have read in a long time.  Ed is a great story-teller and there is infinite wisdom hidden in his stories.

Principles

  • Get the team right.  If you get the team right, they’ll get the ideas right.
  • When hiring people, focus on potential not their current skills.  Personally, as a leader, I have taken a chance on few people with bad performance reviews in the past when I saw the potential. With the right support, I have seen them really achieve success in their careers.
  • Absolutely avoid HiPPO (Highest Paid Persons Opinion) culture.   Inspiration & Ideas can, and do, come from anywhere. And you need to develop processes and frameworks to coax ideas out of your staff.
  • Change and uncertainty are part of life.  Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur.  If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead
  • Build a culture that enables risk-taking and it’s consequences: Failure.  Don’t measure the outcome without evaluating the process.   Failure should be considered natural and necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • Show early and show often.  Don’t wait for it to be perfect.  This is common for people who work in Agile environments
  • The org structure should have no bearing on communication structure.  Everybody should be able to communicate with anybody.
  • Our job as managers is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of non-so-greatness. Protect the future, not the past.

There are certainly more principles in the book, however, I believe the above list captures the gist of Ed’s message.

Tools

Braintrust 

We desperately need unvarnished opinions from our collaborators, peers and managers for us to make sure we are on the right path and avoid costly mistakes. However, most people I have worked with in most organisations seem to shy away from communicating fully and openly, due to their own fears and instincts for self-preservation.

To address this, Ed and his team, created and institutionalised the concept of “Braintrust“.  What is Braintrust?

Braintrust is a collection of passionate  and skilled people who meet frequently to assess projects in progress, identify and solve problems.   However, the foundation of Braintrust is “candor”.  The expectation is that the people who are reviewing your work will deliver straight talk with no personal bias or criticism.  And the person who is presenting or his/her work is being reviewed expects nothing but straight talk.  No finger pointing or any kind of hidden agendas.  The goal is to identify and solve problems. Simple.  Imagine that in your organization.

In past, I have worked in an organization where we used to do company-wide two-release roadmap reviews which does come quite close to the concept of Braintrust.  However, during this process, the entire portfolio was reviewed, so each team got very limited time to get some deep feedback.  More importantly, HiPPO will creep in with only a few executives presenting their opinions and majority of participants primarily listening.   There was lack of candor to a large extent, fear was predominant emotion, unfortunately.

Below is the video of Ed explaining the Braintrust at Pixar –

Notes Day

In film-making, often studio executives and other folks will review your work and provide you “notes” on your film.   However, Ed took the concept of notes and expanded it to so everyone from top-to-bottom in the company can actually review not a particular film, but the entire company operations and provide “notes”.

As a matter of fact, they devoted one full day to this process and during the “Notes Day” no normal work was conducted, the entire company from janitor to CEO sitting down to review and critique the company operations.  Imagine how empowering this could be for you and your employees.

In short, Notes Day involves a series of one-hour meetings, where groups of employees address the problems by discussing topics and ideas that interest them, and which have the potential to benefit the organisation. While the specifics of running a Notes Day will differ according to the size, nature and needs of an organisation, the structure offers an excellent method for collaborative problem-solving.

The process might look as follow –

  • Invite suggestions for discussions topics
  • Synthesize and distill into a manageable level of topics
  • Invite people to sign-up for topics they might be interested in.  Everybody is free to join any topic, regardless of position or seniority.   Appoint facilitators.
  • On the Notes day –
    • Opening meeting with all company: reiterate the importance and aims of the day. Encourage candour, openness and honesty. Remind every one of the need for ‘thick skin’ – especially management, who are likely to hear some difficult upwards feedback as part of the process.
    • Team/departmental meetings: to get everyone warmed up, the first hour should be people who work together discussing how they can work better/address the identified problem(s).
    • Hourly discussion groups: the rest of the day is broken into hour-long discussion groups, covering the selected topics.
    • End of the day: once it’s all over, hold a social event, like a barbeque, where people can unwind and continue discussions sparked throughout the day

After Notes Day make sure ideas are taken forward from Notes Day.  In my professional career, I am yet to work for an organization that had anything resembling a Notes Day.

In addition to above, Ed does talk about two other tools –

  • The Dailies
  • PostMortems

However, any organization that follows the Agile development process incorporates these concepts with Daily Scrum Stand-up meetings and Postmortems after every sprint.

 

 

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