More Wisdom From Ed Catmull

Another great video of Ed Catmull speaking at the 2012 General Commencement of the University of Utah:

Jump to 98:25 for the commencement address. What follows are my notes as I watch the video myself.

I love the importance he ascribes to creativity, even in industries that are not typically considered creative. He also had a good warning about the risk of creative people becoming un-creative: he warns that unseen corporate forces can be at work to send a successful company off the rails that management cannot even detect. He talks about finding the systemic and cultural forces that block creativity and how to eliminate them.

At 110:00 he speaks of the need for change and the fear of change, and provides great insight into one of the greatest risks to companies is a tendency to latch onto the familiar because of a fear of failure. He then relates a story that really struck me about the movie Bolt; how the hamster character was so complicated the movie could not be completed in the 8 months remaining. When asked about retooling the character, the management team was told it would take 6 months to retool the character, something that obviously would not work given the fixed deadline. Instead, a pair of animators managed to retool the character in four days, deciding it was better to seek forgiveness than permission. How did they manage to do in four days what others said would take six months? It turned out there was so much fear of error and fear of failure in the animation department that the whole creative process was wrapped in excess process and procedures to try and prevent errors.

One of the best insights that Ed Catmull brings in this speech is what I’d describe as being aware of your blind spots: he emphasizes the importance of being aware of what he cannot see, either because he cannot see it coming or because his position means that others act differently around him. It’s clear that Dr. Catmull focuses as much or even more on unseen threats as he does on those facing him directly.

“We should plan for the unseen, not try to prevent it.”

“We face the problems, we face the hard questions. The answers are the mere byproducts of addressing interesting questions. The questions are the doorway into the unknown.”

At 131:30 Ed gives a unique insight into Steve Jobs, and how he learned from failure and improved and grew as an individual. He also gives a new perspective on the concept of Job’s Reality Distortion Field:

“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, then this means that you do modify your reality, you do change the future.”

The more I learn of how Dr. Catmull built and leads Pixar, the more I want to find effective ways to emulate him.

Management Lessons From Phineas & Ferb

One of the best things about having small kids is they can be used as a cover for watching cartoons, and one of our favorites is Phineas & Ferb. For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s a sample:

This is a great show because it’s one of those shows that can entertain both adults and children and doesn’t dumb things down but instead respects kids and their ability to get things, while being entertaining for parents and not annoying them to the point of changing the channel like some shows for kids. And hey, it has some lessons for you managers out there:

You need a Phineas and a Ferb

A great team can get more done than a collection of individuals, and one of the key elements of a good team are individuals who bring different but complimentary skills to the larger group. Look at Phineas and you see someone who brings ideas to the table, evangelizes them to others and has enough technical know-how to support their implementation. In Ferb we see someone who has the deep knowledge & skills to make Phineas’ ideas a reality. A strong team is made of T-Shaped people, those with depth in a few key areas and breadth to allow them to collaborate across the team.

Dream Big, Don’t Apologize

Too often we impose limitations when we brainstorm new ideas, imposing the lens of “what is possible” on our discussion of “what is best”, which prevents us from coming up with some really great ideas. When you watch Phineas & Ferb you’ll see occasions when they call this kind of thinking out directly. In many episodes you’ll see a typical interaction of a character asking Phineas “Aren’t you a little young to <INSERT IMPRESSIVE ACTIVITY HERE>?” to which he generally replies “Yes, yes we are.” Phineas never apologizes for dreaming big, neither do successful organizations. This doesn’t mean that everything you dream up will be immediately possible; I’ve been reading some great books on the history of Pixar (see links at the bottom of this entry) and one aspect of Pixar’s history that I loved is they had a vision that served are their compass (of creating a movie in CGI), but which was not achieved for well over a decade.

Share Openly

There’s a real tendency in organizations to play things close to the chest, whether it’s companies staying in stealth mode as long as possible, or even individual departments keeping things to themselves in the interest of secrecy. When you watch an episode of Phineas and Ferb, you’ll see that the brothers are quick to share their work at all stages of development. The result of this is always positive, with others offering them assistance, ideas and materials. Another great example comes from my Pixar reading: at Pixar there is a requirement for each production team to show their work in progress on a weekly basis with the entire organization, sessions that are literally open to all employees in the company. This approach not only recognized that good ideas can come from anywhere (even the janitor), but also builds a community feeling among all employees and helps with morale. I like to support the startup community in my city by attending demo days and other events, and it’s great to see small startups share what they are doing rather than worry about someone stealing their ideas because it enables me to share ideas and experience to hopefully make them more successful.

Trust Your People, Don’t Worry About Being Surprised

If you’ve hired your team of Phineas and Ferb types, trained them well, and given them the resources they need to succeed, then the next thing to do is get out of their way! Here’s a quote I love from Ed Catmull, founder and CEO of Pixar and a man full of management wisdom:

…managers need to learn that they don’t always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it’s OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised.

For an example of this, just compare the responses of Ferb’s father, Lawrence Fletcher, to Phineas’ older sister Candace. Candace is focused on having authority, doesn’t trust her brothers, and spends the majority of most episodes trying to get in their way and prevent them from achieving their goals, all because they think outside the box she has mentally created for them. Lawrence shows a certain nonchalance about the boys’ activities, presumably because he’s aware of Ferb’s abilities and trusts him not to get into (serious) trouble.

Now of course one could argue that Lawrence is more oblivious than trusting, but the fact remains that you need to respect & trust those who you work with, and avoid micromanagement. Too many managers spend too much time managing, and too little time leading.

On that note I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite definitions of leadership, again from a book on Pixar (the Pixar Way) that I have been re-reading lately:

The ability to establish and maintain a creative climate in which individuals and teams are self-motivated to the successful achievement of long-term goals in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Recommended Reading

Bonus Sample Episode

The Management Wisdom of Ed Catmull

I greatly admire Pixar and its people, and one of the people I admire greatly is Ed Catmull, the Pixar founder. His personal contributions to computer science and computer graphics are phenomenal, but he’s also an excellent leader and businessman. The following video from an Economist conference provides a good example of his wisdom:

And here’s another, older example:

It’s wisdom like this that puts books like this on my desk: