What it means to lead innovation

image credit: eventplannersassociation.com

image credit: eventplannersassociation.com

In a 2008 Harvard Business Review profile, Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, offered some insight into effectively managing creativity and innovation. As Julie, Juliet and I gear up for the second annual Ed to Save the World Innovation Summit in Washington, DC, his thoughts are a helpful reminder about what it takes to be an innovative organization in any field.

Check out the full article here. I only got through the first page before I had to sit down and write this — every single paragraph is full of useful, wise thoughts.

First, and foremost, I loved his against-the-grain description of creativity:

“People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea: This is a movie about toys, or dinosaurs, or love, they’ll say. However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems.”

A large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve many problems? If this isn’t a school, I don’t know what is.

The larger question, then, is how do leaders manage a creative organization to achieve desired results?

[The creative process is] like an archaeological dig where you don’t know what you’re looking for or whether you will even find anything. The process is downright scary. […] To act in this fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new. That’s why you see so many movies that are so much alike. It also explains why a lot of films aren’t very good. If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people!

Got it: embrace uncertainty, risk-taking, and most of all make sure talented people stick around.

What’s equally tough, of course, is getting talented people to work effectively with one another. That takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time. What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity. If we get that right, the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places. I know what I’m describing is the antithesis of the free-agency practices that prevail in the movie industry, but that’s the point: I believe that community matters.

Yes! As leaders it’s our job to cultivate the environment that nurtures creativity. It is not our job to come up with all the ideas, but rather to unleash the passions and talents of those on our team.

While I’m not foolish enough to predict that we will never have a flop, I don’t think our success is largely luck. Rather, I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible. Pixar is a community in the true sense of the word. We think that lasting relationships matter, and we share some basic beliefs: Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.

There’s plenty here for us to work on: value people, expect and embrace failures, be honest, challenge all of our assumptions, and constantly look for ways to improve.

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Categories: Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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