Book of the Month: Weird Ideas That Work

Weird Ideas That Work: How To Build a Creative Company

By Robert I. Sutton

Book cover; weird ideas that workThis book is packed full of ideas and examples, Sutton often gives the chapters or the ideas thought-provoking titles – chapter 10 is “Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success is Certain” for example, this chapter could be summarised without persistence great ideas fail; persistence requires belief. It’s worth reading on. I thought back to a project I managed about 5 years ago, one of the team came to me telling me we’d hit a “showstopper”, my only question was a mild “which one is it today?” and he later told me that gave him hope – the fact that I clearly saw it as another setback and not stopping us.

Most of the ideas sound counter-intuitive, but Sutton provides evidence and examples to show that they work. He also makes a clear distinction between the needs of an organisation (or department) that needs to do what it does consistently and repeatedly and one that needs to innovate, the practices in this book are for the latter.

For a long time I’ve held the belief that people who are new to your organisation are a valuable source of critical information, they haven’t bought into the company’s branding and processes and have fresh ideas on how to improve things. I value their input, and have coached new arrivals to contribute. Sutton codifies this as “Hire People Who Are Slow Learners (of the Organizational Code)”. Such slow learners retain their ability to think critically and independently, as an example of this Sutton uses Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger investigation.

This idea is taken one step further and labelled as “Weird Idea #1½”, and contrary to the fashion for hiring for cultural fit the advice is to hire people who make you feel uncomfortable, even those you dislike. We know that as hiring managers have a bias towards hiring people just like us, so this really goes against our instincts. But a company full of creatives misses the business needs and a company full of engineers misses creative opportunities.

Of course there’s more to this idea, once you’ve bought the person into your company you need to find ways to make any resulting tension into something productive; one suggestion from the book is deceptively simple; you need to listen to their ideas and and insist others do so as well.

Perhaps my favourite weird idea is #5

I was brought up to avoid conflict and confrontation, but it can be productive. When people fight about ideas it shows they care about their work, the project and the company. If people fight respecting the perspectives of the others the results can be a better process or product. It’s the opposite of group think.  The word “happy” is key to the idea working; this limits the risk of discussions falling into destructive personal attacks, they’re more likely to use humour to diffuse any situation that becomes heated and the conflict stays productive.

This isn’t a new book – I have had it on my bookshelf for years, I guess I picked it up after reading “The No Asshole Rule” by the same author but published later. Some of the ideas I have come across in other places, but it’s still interesting to see them backed up by evidence and examples.  Throughout the book I had moments of recognition, sometimes happy that I had stumbled on the right approach to foster innovation, and sometimes rueful as it cast previous events in a different light. It’s a quick read, and the examples help and point to further reading.

I think this is a good book for any manager looking to make their team more creative and more energised about innovation. I’ll be keeping it on my shelf for future reference. (And I’ll keep an eye out for his next book coming out in September).

Great Summer Reading List 2017

Hurrah for summer! You’ll pack up your swimsuit, sunblock and sunglasses but what will you take to read? Here are my picks.

Leadership

(1) Weird Ideas that Work, I love the title, and I’m enjoying the combination of counter-intuitive ideas that turn out to be practical.  One chapter is devoted to “find some happy people and get them to fight”, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but it’s about building creative conflict – which is positive and useful. (This is not a new book, and the edition I have has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. )

Sustainability

(2) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a frightening look at the real changes happening in our environment, from a fungus that is killing off frogs, to a decline in bat numbers, and our warming oceans. You can whet your appetite with an article in the New Yorker from the writer.

Business

(3) Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, explores just how well Google knows us, and is written by an ex-GooglerSeth Stephens-Davidowitz. While we might post a lot to social media we post the good news, the real story of our lives is revealed in our searches.

(4) Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, looks at why one artist (Monet) becomes famous, and another (Caillebotte) didn’t. Apparently luck has something to do with it.

(5) The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, Bharat Anand examines the different strategic approaches taken by publishers in the digital world. 

Biography

(6) Not exactly a biography, but certainly a hero’s tale The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts , by Joshua Hammer, tells the story of smuggling ancient books and texts out of Timbuktu after the Al Qaeda took control.  I haven’t read it yet but the National Geographic article about it makes me hope someone’s bought the movie rights and plans to star Mahershala Ali.

(7) Part memoir, part self-help guide; I am looking forward to Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person. She is someone to admire, who has managed to not only be her own person but to put roles on screen that reflect ourselves.

(8) One of my favourite reads in the last year was Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble which tells the harrowing story of Dan Lyons’ year in a startup in an amusing way while explaining what might be wrong with the startup and VC ecosystem.  

Personal Effectiveness

(9) Insight by Tasha Eurich, a psychologist, who looks at whether we’re self-aware or deluding ourselves, and what we can do about it. Sounds interesting in a slightly scary way.

Fiction

Summer should be all about the serious things so here’s a fiction option to consider;

(10) I am so happy that Arundhati Roy has returned to writing with the The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and I can’t wait to read it.

Don’t like my recommendations? Try Bill Gates’s.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

How to Fly a Horse

Sept2016BOTM

How to Fly a Horse; The Secret History of Creation and Discovery

Kevin Ashton

Who discovered how to cultivate vanilla?  How did the American Airforce develop jet engines in a matter of months?  Why does Woody Allen (almost always) avoid the Oscars despite almost two dozen nominations?

This book is a collection of lessons about creativity with a myriad of examples – some of which will be familiar and some of which you won’t have heard of.  It begins by attacking the myth of creativity, the very pervasive idea that creativity is the province of a certain type of person, that creativity is a gift, an amazing flash of inspiration.  Instead he posits, with significant evidence, that creative thinking is in everyone’s reach, in fact it’s just thinking. We only get to call it creative when we see the results.

creative thinking

While we’re all possible of thinking, and of generating creative results the outcome, or rather the impact may vary. New ideas aren’t believed, our own cognitive biases make us favour the status quo. It takes the remarkable persistence of someone like Judah Folkman, whose work on blood supply to tumours is now considered a breakthrough. But for more than ten years he pursued what his colleagues considered a “dead end”.

In order to move our opinion away from the status quo we need extraordinary, convincing evidence.

evidence for new ideas

The challenges to creativity and inventiveness grows as organisations grow and compliance becomes more important. But the history of the development of jet engine at Lockheed Martin offers an example of how creative results can be supported within an organisation; it took leadership, a dedicated team in their own environment, a clear goal, freedom to challenge the status quo. They benefitted from an existing culture of “show me”, so an inventor can convince their colleagues by showing their idea works rather than endless discussion. (In another chapter Ashton laments time wasted in meetings with discussion)

The book is worth reading for the histories of inventors and creativity alone, but it goes beyond that in encouraging everyone to practise their creativity, setting out the work needed, and showing the challenges you’ll face. passion fuels creativity

How to Fly a Horse was awarded a “best business book” award earlier this year, however to me the specific applications for business seem less than those for individuals. I would recommend this book for anyone who feels “stuck” in their creativity.

 

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

Leadership BS Book Review

Yes, the “BS” in the title stands for “Bullshit”.

More money is spent on leadership training of various sorts every year, and yet stuff goes wrong and leadership failures occur in every industry; from banking to car manufacture. In Leadership BS, the author Jeffrey Pfeffer, takes a shot at the “leadership industry” examining the commonly held beliefs delivered in leadership training and comparing them against the reality.I’ve been through leadership training and felt pretty strongly that I’d benefitted from it. So I opened the book with curiosity, but also with a personal bias. It’s a revealing read.

To start with Pfeffer makes the very valid point that we don’t measure leadership training, we don’t look at and measure outcomes.

BOTMLeadershipBSAugust2016Many years ago I worked in leadership training, and one of the challenges was measuring the effectiveness of the courses we offered. We had the usual ‘smiley’ sheets, which record how happy people are the day they finish the course, but don’t tell you much about whether the course changes how they will lead. It turns out evaluating the impact of leadership courses isn’t that easy to do in a large company, but perhaps before and after 360 degree assessments would be a good place to start.

Pfeffer works through the commonly accepted ideal traits of leadership; modesty, authenticity, trust, truthfulness, and that latecomer “leaders eat last”. In each chapter he describes the  basics of the trait, examines the reality and discusses why the opposite trait might be a better trait for leaders.

In the chapter on modesty there’s a long list of leaders who do not display any form of modesty, the list was written in early 2015 and includes Trump – the businessman Trump. Of course modesty can be seen as a positive trait for leaders, but it “may not be such a good thing for getting to the top or staying there” (pg69). Instead Pfeffer points to a healthy measure of narcissism in many successful leaders. I think we’ve all met colleagues that succeeded beyond their ability, thinking back on ones I have met I think they may have been rewarded for narcissistic traits. A number of the anti-modesty traits are more common in men than women – a potential contributor to the gender gap in leadership.

BookReviewLeadershipBS2It’s a sobering read. It focuses on the reality of the power games of leadership. It does contain a paradox, for the most part Pfeffer agrees that the leadership traits are desirable yet demonstrates that they’re not effective. He calls for individuals to adjust to the reality, and calls for the change in how we assess leaders, and how we measure the effectiveness of leadership training.

Postscript;
Came across this brilliant video addressing authenticity, particularly for women. Had to share – love the quote “we need competent leaders, but we follow confident leaders”.

 

10 Books to Read on your Summer Break

The Great Summer Reading List

It’s time to run away on your summer break, finally you’ll get time to read, what should you pick?

Leadership

(1) I will be reading Leadership BS, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Which promises some ways of rethinking leadership.

(2) If you’re trying to re-think how you manage your team, then Why Work Sucks will take you through the concepts of a results only work environment – there are things there you can implement when you get back from summer.

(3) Your own leadership style comes out of your own attitudes The Art of Possibility is my favourite book to focus on personal leadership.

Innovation

(4) I’ll be reading How to Fly a Horse: The Secret of Creation, Invention and Discovery, a refreshing look at creativity.

Business

(5) I’ll be reading Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. It seems to be a mashup of predicting trends and business applications.

(6) I want to read Phishing for Phools, reviews vary with some economists deriding it and some business people applauding it.

(7) The last business book I read (and reviewed) was Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which challenges our current monetary system and looks at some alternative models for the future of business.

Biography

(8) I want to read the biography of Elon Musk, although I usually am wary of biographies of living people. Musk is such a fascinating entrepreneur for me, he seems driven to solve the world’s challenges as opposed to building a better widget.

Personal Effectiveness

(9) I want to read The Happiness Track, I’ve thought a lot about the way we work and the demands we put on ourselves. I’m hoping this book challenges the ideas behind our current cultural definition of success.

Fiction

(10) If you’re more into fiction – I’m halfway through The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. The BBC has a list of ten books to read that’s making me itch for a bookstore trip.

Happy reading and happy summer.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

Book of the Month: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

Like many people I tend to use the products of the digital revolution more easily than I think about the economics of it. I see the astonishing figures of acquisition value for companies that have yet to make a profit and something seems odd – but I’ve never sat down and examined what. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Rushkoff’s book examines the financial industry, particularly around digital startups to show us just what is wrong with our economy, and offers the beginnings of some solutions.

The main  argument are that our existing economy is set up to serve constant growth, and the wealth generated in that economy accrues to a minority at the top, leaving the majority worse off.

BOTM Googlebus quote1

The book begins with a discussion of an unusual protest; local residences of San Francisco’s Mission District lay down on the street in front of some of the Google buses that were used to ferry employees from their homes to the Google campus. This is a symptom of the dysfunctional economy.

Growth

We have all bought into the growth myth; we need and deserve more – in financial reward for our work, the size of our homes, the shininess of our possessions or the pool of money for our pension. But in nature things grow to maturity and then stop growing, they reach a size that’s appropriate for their physical limits and their ecosystem. An oak tree doesn’t keep growing, it maintains itself over time, growing new leaves each year, but the size remains more or less constant.

Companies have a growth imperative, the market expects growth in their market capitalisation to give investors a return. Which is why the market gets excited about huge audiences on Pokemon Go, and gets jittery when Apple iPhone sales stagnate.

In the theories of business that I learnt in business school a company had to manage multiple stakeholders and keep them all happy to ensure long term success. Put simply a company must keep employees well-trained and motivated to make customers happy, ensuring income for the company to return to investors over a longer term. Stakeholder theory says that the needs of all three must be kept in balance and that neglecting the needs of one will affect the other two.

Rushkoff explains that in today’s market there are relatively few investors in the sense of people wanting to own a piece of a company and be vested in its success. Instead the market is full of traders, those who trade shares amongst themselves and might never know what the company makes or what is on its balance sheet. The most advanced of these is using sophisticated technology and complex algorithms and trading on minute shifts in share price. This trading is done digitally, using microseconds of difference in share price enabled by digital, and the activity is so removed from actual business activity according Rushkoff, that it is creating a distorted market.

The startup economy takes all this to the next level, it effectively gamifies investment.

Startup Economy

In the start up economy it’s venture capitalists doing the investing, and they are not interested in the long term profitability of your company, they’re looking for a maximum return “on exit”, which is either your company being acquired by a larger company or an IPO. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the funding works and the share of return at the IPO stage. Venture Capitalists invest significant amounts in multiple startups and expect some to fail. Conversely the ones that succeed need to do very, very well.

The drive for high valuations of startups is less about the net present value of the company, and more about the expectations of the venture capitalists. The VCs expect a return on their investment not of percentage points, like a traditional investor, but in multiples.

History of Money

Rushkoff points out that it wasn’t always this way. In simpler times we bartered our goods directly, and then as trading grew in the bazaar towns developed a form of script allowing more exchanges. Quality was ensured by a set of guilds who could control a trade. As the bazaar emerged Europe enjoyed rapid economic expansion. However, he suggests, the nobility feared losing their system of value creation, as feudalism broke down, and instituted measures to limit or eliminate local currencies.

The discussion of the changes in how money functioned in the past points to ways that it could function in the future.

Potential Solutions

Money has two functions, measuring accumulated assets and transactional, the system we have now works far better for the former function and not that well for the second. Solutions revolve around changing the currency system in various ways.

  1. Local currency; eg the Massachusetts Berkshares
  2. Free money; eg; the Worgl currency
  3. Cooperative currencies; eg; Fureai Kippu
  4. Local bank; reforming banking to enable local investment
  5. Crypto currency; eg Bitcoin, which frees up money for transactions.

Rushkoff also points to some different models of business building, where businesses are established specifically not to grow – or at least not to grow beyond their chartered purpose. He asks that new entrepreneurs think of more in the stakeholder model that delivers long term sustainable growth.

You can see a discussion of the book at the Commonwealth Club;

The book explains all the history and the theory very clearly, I think it’s a must read for digital professionals, economists and those with an interest in sustainability or social justice. There are plenty of examples throughout the book – most real and a few hypothetical. The book answered a lot of my “how does that work?” economic questions, but also made me curious at how do we solve this for ourselves and for future generations.

I look at the overwhelming wall of opposition, the “vested interests” and the conflicted interests – after all even as I see the sense of this revolution I am relying on the growth of investments to pay for my future, and the solutions offered seem too small and too vulnerable. For real change it will take government regulation to change, in the meantime I’ll look for alternative models that I can employ today.

Book of the Month: Non-Obvious

BOMApril_NonObvious

I have both the 2015 and 2016 editions of this book, it’s not necessary to buy both as the 2016 edition covers everything in the 2015 edition. This is book of the month for May.

Non-Obvious 2016 Edition – How To Think Different, Curate Ideas & Predict The Future

By: Rohit Bhargava

This book tries to do two things; teach you how to collect your own trends and secondly discuss the trends they’ve collected and see as important. Maybe I’m too lazy to be a trend curator – I preferred the second part of the book.

In the mass of news it can be challenging to sort out trends for fads, which Bhargava recognises in naming his method “The Haystack Method”. He likens the mass of information to a haystack, but considers the insight you apply to the information to be the needle, and sets out five steps for trend curation.Trend Curation Process

Gathering is simply saving interesting ideas from the mass of content that surrounds his, he prints out the ideas and labels them with a sharpie, finding this easier to work with in the aggregate step than online options. (I’m a fan of online options – Pocket being my current favourite).

Aggregate is grouping the ideas into clusters, looking for broad ideas affecting multiple unrelated industries, perhaps focusing on a human need rather than a technology. Give each group a working title that conveys why the grouping is interesting.

Elevating is looking for the big ideas across your clusters, connecting ideas from different examples and determining which ones represent a shift in business practices. It’s the toughest step, and may result in you disturbing the clusters from step 2.

Naming a trend in a way that is both understandable and memorable. Bhargava often uses word mashups, alliteration and twists to create something that works. Examples in the 2016 edition include “B2Beyond Marketing”,  “Reverse Retail”,  and “The Reluctant Marketer”. I’m generally not a fan of the word mashups.

Prove check that the trend you’ve identified really is a trend. Bhargava looks at the strength of the underlying idea, the impact on behaviour and the potential acceleration of the idea.

In each section he provides tips and tricks to help you follow the process, and provides some examples of how he’s approached each step. Even so the guidance is rather high level, and since the underlying assumption is that you collect ideas and read widely I’m not sure that this really works as  guide.

The second, and larger, part of the book discusses the trends, and this I enjoyed more. Each trend is explained in context, with industry examples and closes with “How to use this trend”, which mostly made me want to do more research.

My two favourite trends for 2016 were I’ll point out a couple of the trends that appealed to me.

Mainstream Multiculturalism

Mainstream multiculturalism

My worlds collide in this one trend, I’ve now spent more of my adult life outside my home country than in it, and I’ve lived in five different countries, my friends are from all over, and speak all sorts of languages so I never really fit the mainstream wherever I am. I think the patterns of migration, the rise of the children of migrants and the increased opportunities all feed into this.

The other side of my life, the geek side, makes this all possible; technology now delivers a range of platforms where anyone can contribute, so we have more “voices” in entertainment.

But the trend goes beyond entertainment, into our food and our politics with Justin Trudeau commenting that the make up of his cabinet, and specifically the gender balance was important “because it’s 2015”.

In “how to use this trend” Bhargava points to new hiring practices, instructing you to hire for unexpected diversity, but is light on the “how”. I saw an interview with a filmmaker recently about building more diversity in films who made the very good point that it’s not enough to just hire diversity, you need to mentor and train and listen to the stories being told.  (I should have written down the filmmaker’s name, I only remember her words!)

Strategic Downgrading

Strategic downgrading
Our consumerist mentality assumes that the new shiny thing is better, that more functions are better, that more data/information is a good thing. But some consumers challenge that, rejecting complicated functionality, or valuing one characteristic over all others or favouring single function devices.

Farmers apparently are rejecting the most technologically advanced tractors, favouring instead a more robust model, perhaps one that is easier to use and easier to fix.

Consumers valuing privacy may choose the “Blackphone”, which puts privacy first. There are a number of “un-smartphones” out there with no internet functionality and no camera – but battery life greater than 24 hours.

I could read e-books on a laptop, a tablet or my phone, I don’t, I choose to read either paper books or on my kindle, because when I read I want zero distractions. We’ve recently seen a rise in sales in print books, perhaps as people rediscover the joy of being absorbed in a book and rejected the screen experience.

I doubt I’ll ever be a trend curator professionally, however I found inspiration amongst the trends discussed and some reassurance that my chaotic collecting of ideas might be useful. I like the presentation of the trend chapters with the wide range of industries covered, the blending of ideas in to a human trend and the “how to” sections to guide future use of the trend. I think the “how to” sections following each trend should be seen as inspiration for your next steps rather than specific actions to take.

I did find several errors in the book that seemed to hint at overly-fast production. The diagram of the Haystack method has the steps in the wrong order, and Noma is mentioned as being in Amsterdam (it’s in Copenhagen) are two that grated.

Overall the book is thought-provoking, the trends are characterised on a human need level – rather than the tech-heaving “VR is big” type of trend often seen – and cover a wide range of industries. I think this makes it easier to see applications of each trend across other businesses.

World Book Day

2016 April CM images

I love books, reading is one of my favourite things to do, so I’ll be celebrating World Book and Copyright Day on Saturday installed on my couch doing some serious reading. It’s not surprising that I love books, our house when I was growing up was full of books, they filled a surprising number of boxes when we moved house. When I say surprising I mean that it surprised the moving men who asked my mother “have you read all these”. She has, mostly.

So why are books important?

They’re a source of information, the ultimate in “long form” content. The content can go deeper, offer alternative theories, and expound an argument in a way that a blog post or article never will. A common criticism is that books are “out of date” by they time they’re published, it’s a fair call in some subjects, but there are books I value and return to a decade after they were published. No article has ever had that impact.

Books, particularly fiction, are a source of escape, the cheapest way to travel to new worlds.  It’s a form of escapism that’s legal and (relatively) cheap. It’s also good for your brain, reading fiction improves your brain connectivity and increases empathy. Regular reading reduces stress, and it can be a useful distractor in times of stress.

Books are one of my favourite decorating ideas, and research shows that children from homes with books do better academically. And there’s a long accepted link between literacy and a country’s development, so much so that Mao changed the written form of the language to make it easier to learn.

What about digital?

I was a hold out on the digital front, preferring the reading experience of paper. But I caved and bought a kindle a few years ago, and was converted, and oh the convenience – I can carry the four books I’ll read on a long haul flight, or the 12 books I’m using for research and work anywhere. I usually read more than one book at a time, and now I can carry all with me.

Lots of people love the feel and smell of books and swear they’ll never change and there’s some research out there suggesting that retention from reading paper is higher. But it is possible to love both, it’s the content that’s the magic.

Postscript; it’s the official World Book Day tomorrow, but it is celebrated in March in many countries as it fits better with the school year.

Image: Some of the books on the shelves in my house; the business books section.

Book of the Month: Rebels at work

BOTMMarch
This is the first in a new series reviewing one book each month, I’m selecting books on the themes of business, leadership, digital technology and communication.

Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

By Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina, and Debra Cameron

 I wish I’d read Rebels at Work years ago. It’s aimed at all those who have great ideas and struggle against the complexity and inertia of a big company to get them implemented. It’s about leading change from within a company, getting your ideas heard, building support, and how your personal approach can help (or hinder) the process.

I recognised a lot of the concepts in Rebels at Work, but seeing them put into words and in context gave me many “aha” moments, starting with the matrix of past, present and future thinking. True rebels will be future thinkers while large organisations are likely to exhibit the characteristics of “present thinking” – focusing on organising, rules, structure, processes and reaching goals. This contradiction can lead to frustration for rebels, but the book goes on to give you ideas to address it.

One big lesson the book brings up several times; the timing of launching your big idea. Don’t do it in the first moment you think of it; do your research, and build support first. I’ve seen this go wrong for a number of people who have had great ideas but earnt themselves a reputation of not being serious enough to get things done. I don’t think that’s been a failing of mine – but I have definitely underestimated how much people like the status quo and don’t want to change.

There’s some interesting research throughout the book, the report that got me was the 10% tipping point; research shows that if 10% of a group believe in an idea the majority of the people will adopt that believe.

Book of the Month2

One of the strengths of the book is the focus on interpersonal skills, there’s a whole chapter on handling disagreement and conflict. They provide strategies and even sample texts to help change the discussion instead of asking why ask “how might we reduce the risk?”, why forces the argument, how brings people onside.

There is a chapter focusing on “rebel self-care” which talks about the signs of burnout and reminds you that you can walk away, an truth that’s hard to remember when you’re in the middle of change and believe you’re making things better.

Even with this chapter I think the authors underplay how hard the rebel’s role can be and how damaging it can be, I suspect their answer might be “walk away before that happens”.

I got the recommendation for this book via twitter sometime last year, I started reading it then – almost crying with recognition! Then life happened and I was busy with other things, and only came back to finish reading it this month. It’s a great guide for those trying to change companies from the inside, so a big thank you to Luis Suarez.

Creativity Inc

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 17.37.28This was the best non-fiction book I read in 2015, hand’s down. I bought it because I heard Ed Catmull speak at the Dublin Summit and liked what he had to say. I add notes as I read, and this is my most annotated book. I was texting quotes from it to a friend – who has now bought his own copy.

In part it’s the story of Pixar, but from that there are distilled lessons for business leaders of all sorts. There’s a touching afterword titled “The Steve We Knew”, which details how Steve Jobs worked with Pixar, and shows not just the level of commitment he had to the company but the enjoyment he got from Pixar and how much he learnt from them.

In someways Pixar is a special case; it’s a highly creative company with a string of movie hits. Those movies have been chock-full of technical innovation, but it’s the story arc, and the “realness” of the animation that has won them fans, earnt the dollars and won the awards. They are relentless in their pursuit of quality, and take unusual steps to achieve this;

  • On the ground research; animation teams experience first hand the real life environments they’ll need to create on the screen. The makers of Brave had archery lessons, and a chef made ratatouille for the makers of Ratatouille.
  • Honest feedback; movies go through multiple rounds of feedback on every aspect of the film, from the story itself to dynamics of animation. Often the focus is on pinpointing what is wrong rather than prescribing a fix.
  • Trust; while the process might seem messy, the direction is right and the quality story will emerge from the messiness.
  • Open Communication; anyone can talk to anyone.

This creative DNA has meant that the company was more willing to test ideas on how to work. The feedback loop on the creative output could be re-engineered and applied to the creative process and then to the company culture. The result is some real lessons for businesses.

I think the most powerful idea is that if you have the right team, then the chances are that they’ll get the ideas right. This is so often overlooked in companies where the emphasis is placed very strongly on process.  It’s backed up by the ideas of hiring people smarter than you, and people with great potential to grow.

Pixar always looked to improve, so even with a string of hit movies and good growth figures when managers got a sense that the company culture was tilting away from their vision they held a “Notes Day”, designed to collect specific improvement points for action. The day itself was compulsory, and it was opened by John Lasseter, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, sharing the feedback he’d received about his own behaviour. This radical honesty set the stage for more openness. After the event there were more than a dozen specific ideas to implement, but much of the value came from the event itself. It served as an explicit re-inforcement of the company’s open culture and commitment to honest feedback.

Catmull’s love of the company he founded, and his belief in it’s continued success shines through every page. He seems very aware of the impact of his style of leadership and his decisions and very focussed on building excellence into the company, the output and most importantly the people.

protect the future

In the final chapter called “Starting Points”, Catmull summarises the learning points from the book and adds this caveat “I know that when you distill a complex idea into a T-shirt slogan, you risk giving the illusion of understanding – and, in the process, of sapping the idea of its power”. The ideas, though, have potential as mantras for managers and employees. He talks about how imposing limits can encourage a creative response, which is true, although the story behind this that is related in the book shows that it needs to be tempered with some common sense so that the limits don’t kill your team. His comments relating to risk are instructive as well – it’s not for managers to prevent risk, but to make it safe for to take them. The attitude to failure is a positive one “It’s a necessary consequence of doing something new”. If the leadership of your company said that and demonstrated belief in it, what might you achieve? Another favourite and one that I’ve put into practice “Be wary of making too many rules”, you can spend a lot of time making rules to prevent something that almost never happens. It’s better to focus on building the behaviour you want and address issues individually.

But my favourite, one that I would put on a t-shirt is “Protect the future, not the past”.

This book is on my “favourites” shelf, partly because it validated some of the things I’ve already been thinking about working with creative professionals. I was fascinated to have a glimpse inside Pixar, the style of writing is conversational and easy to digest, and there was a lot to learn.