Ideas are not singular

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.”

In January 2006, Disney announced it would spend $7.4 billion to buy its “cousin” Pixar Animation Studios. Many wondered about the fate of Disney Animation Studios itself – would Disney shut down the division that forged its identity, but had stagnated since its success in the early 1990s with films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast? Would it leave hand-drawn animation behind in favor of computer animation?

Within months, the question was settled. Disney CEO Bob Iger named Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull to head Disney Animation, and the duo decided to leave the divisions separate and autonomous.

The decision played out brilliantly. Not only has Pixar continued to release hits like Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Disney Animation recently released the best-selling animated movie of all time – Frozen – on the heels of its other well-received animated films, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled.

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This kind of success seemed far from reality in 1986, when Steve Jobs decided to purchase a small, struggling division of Lucasfilm with one product: the Pixar Image Computer. As Catmull explains in his book Creativity Inc.:

From the outside, Pixar probably looked like your typical Silicon Valley startup. On the inside, however, we were anything but. Steve Jobs had never manufactured or marketed a high-end machine before, so he had neither the experience nor the intuition about how to do so. We had no sales people and no marketing people and no idea where to find them. Steve, Alvy Ray Smith, John Lasseter, me—none of us knew the first thing about how to run the kind of business we had just started. We were drowning.

By 1990, the team had realized Pixar’s future was not in selling machines, but selling art. Still, it was a tough time. Even as Pixar produced computer animated TV ads and shorts, the company was losing too much money. Jobs tried to sell it more than once – luckily, without success.

Pixar caught its first break in 1991, when Disney’s Jeff Katzenberg asked the company to produce three computer-animated features, which Disney would distribute and own. (These would go on to become Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2.)

By the end of 1995, Pixar was a public company and Toy Story a legitimate hit. Amid the success, Catmull had his first existential crisis as President of Pixar Animation:

For twenty years, my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that goal had been reached, I had what I can only describe as a hollow, lost feeling. As a manager, I felt a troubling lack of purpose. Now what? The thing that had replaced it seemed to be the act of running a company, which was more than enough to keep me busy, but it wasn’t special. Pixar was now public and successful, yet there was something unsatisfying about the prospect of merely keeping it running. It took a serious and unexpected problem to give me a new sense of mission.

Catmull realized that although it had put out a great film, Pixar had a large group of employees who were reluctant to sign on for a second project. With the creative team behind Toy Story being given tremendous resources and status, the production team – responsible for executing thousands of movie-making details – felt marginalized.

In the process of solving his organizational problem, Catmull realized a new purpose: Fostering a sustainable organizational culture.

As I saw it, our mandate was to foster a culture that would seek to keep our sightlines clear, even as we accepted that we were often trying to engage with and fix what we could not see. My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. This sounds like a lofty goal, but it was there for all of us from the beginning. We were blessed with a remarkable group of employees who valued change, risk, and the unknown and who wanted to rethink how we create. How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way? That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

From there, Creativity, Inc. explores the process of developing the culture envisioned in his post-Toy Story hangover. Given his success at Pixar, and then Disney, some of the key points are worth examining.

In the end, it’s about people, not ideas.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.

[…]

Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Solicit criticism from a trusted group:

I want to stress that you don’t have to work at Pixar to create a Braintrust. Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.

Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.

Failure is necessary for creative work:

Says [Director] Andrew [Stanton]: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

Even though people in our offices have heard Andrew say this repeatedly, many still miss the point. They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure if a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by a desire to avoid it.

Protect the New:

When I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched—and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to see it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.

Conflict is Essential to Creative Progress

As director Brad Bird sees it, every creative organization—be it an animation studio or a record label—is an ecosystem. “You need all the seasons,” he says. “You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it does’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.”

Creativity Inc. is an engaging look inside the creativity engine at Pixar.

Work in Pulses

We’re not designed to multitask and we’re certainly not designed to work continuously without a break.

We’re designed to pulse, that is alternate between expending energy and recovering.

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Pulses

(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

The heart beats. The lungs breathe in and out. The brain makes waves. We wake and sleep. Even digestion is rhythmic.

We’re built the same way according to Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Schwartz told Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time that we’re not built for the modern environment.

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Ignoring the Obvious

(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

(Because the ideal worker is measured in hours) we tend to put in long ones, (Schwartz) said. We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, and distraction and just power through. But we’re hardly doing our best work.

“We’ve lost touch,” Schwartz says, “with the value of rest, renewal, recovery, quiet time, and downtime.” The pressure of long hours, in a face time world, combined with the constant bombardment of modern interruptions (think email, phone calls, texts, meetings, etc.) means that increasingly we’re not doing our best thinking at work. Maybe we should heed the advice of some famous philosophers and take a walk.

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Sleep

We sleep in 90 minute cycles, with our brain waves slowing and speeding, only to begin again.

Schwartz’s thinking was influenced by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is the guy behind the 10,000 hour rule.

Here is Schulte explaining in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Ericsson studied young violinists at the prestigious Academy of Music in Berlin to see what it takes to be the best. Ericsson is widely credited for coming up with the theory that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice in anything to become an expert.

“That led to the assumption that the best way to get things done is to just work more hours ,” Schwartz said. But that’s only part of it.

Ericsson’s study found that not only did the best violinists practice more, they also practiced more deliberately: They practiced first thing in the morning, when they were freshest, they practiced intensely without interruption in typically no more than ninety-minute increments for no more than four hours a day.

Most important, the top violinists rested more — napping more during the day and sleeping longer at night. Sleep is actually more important than food. “Great performers,” Schwartz wrote in Be Excellent at Anything, “work more intensely than most of us do but also recover more deeply.”

Three hour meetings? That’s a recipe for disaster leading to subpar work and poor decisions, not to mention meeting marathons drive people to hate work.

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Attention Deficit Disorder

A lot of adults I know think they suffer from ADD. These are the people who, when they get out of a 3 hour meeting, talk on the phone, send an email, and write the grocery list to “make up time.” Well you can’t really make up time, and working like this is incredibly ineffective. But before we get to that, is all of this multitasking driving us to disorder? Could Attention Deficit Disorder be driven by our always-on environment?

Ed Hallowell believes so.

He’s a psychiatrist with ADD, and he spent years working on practical solutions to help people being overloaded by too many demands on their time and energy.

I read his book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, a few years back.
He claims we have “culturally generated ADD.”

Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.

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Breaks Inspire Creativity

Scientists have found that people who take time to daydream score higher on tests of creativity. And there’s a very good biochemical reason why your best ideas and those flashes of insight tend to come not when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, oh ideal worker, but in the shower.

In a series of tests using brain imaging and electroencephalography, psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman have actually mapped what happens in the brain during the aha! moment, when the brain suddenly makes new connections and imagines, Kounios has said, “new and different ways to transform reality creatively into something better.” When the brain is solving a problem in a deliberate and methodical way, Kounios and Beeman found that the visual cortex, the part of the brain controlling sight, is most active. So the brain is outwardly focused. But just before a moment of insight, the brain suddenly turns inward, what the researchers called a “brain blink.” Alpha waves in the right visual cortex slow, just as when we often close our eyes in thought. Milliseconds before the insight, Kounios and Beeman recorded a burst of gamma activity in the right hemisphere in the area of the brain just above the ear, believed to be linked to our ability to process metaphors.

A positive mood heightens the chances for creative insight, as does taking time to relax, as Archimedes did in his bathtub before his eureka! moment about water displacement and as Einstein did when working out his Theory of Relatively while reportedly tootling around on his bicycle.

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Working in Pulses

Terry Monaghan, a self-described productivity expert, whom we met in Work, Play, Love encouraged Brigid Schulte to work in pulses. The idea is to chunk your time. This is why one of the single most effective changes you can make to your work day is to move your creative work to the start of the day — you give yourself a chunk of time.

Discussing this in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte writes:

The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking , “role switching,” and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work— the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night—during the day. And to be more focused and less distracted with my family.

When it was time to work, I began to shut off e-mail and turn off the phone. When it was time to be with family, I tried to do the same. I began to gather home tasks in a pile and block off one period of time every day to do them. It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.

The Thirty Minute Pulse
When you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding something or otherwise stuck in a state of ambivalence, try a timer. Monaghan, recommends 30 minutes then taking a break. “Your brain,” she says, “can stay focused on anything, even an unpleasant task, if it knows it will last only thirty minutes.”

I find this useful. I have a 15 minute hour-glass sitting on my desk.

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Putting It All Together

Work in pulses. Chunk your time. Do a daily brain dump to get things off your mind. Keep a notebook with you. If you feel worried or stressed, write it out in your worry journal. Add more of a routine to your day to help avoid decision fatigue. When things are automatic, they don’t consume as much energy.

Don’t wake up and check your email, get to the office and check your email, and then check your email hourly throughout the day. Check your email in batches: late morning and late afternoon.

Most importantly, make time to pause and think about what is most important to you. Narrow your focus and make 80% of your time on the three big things that are important to you. Let everything else fit in the 20% of time left. Let the truly sucky stuff fit in 5% of the time. If leisure is important to you and you can’t find time for it, schedule it in. When you wake up, do one thing that’s important to you right away.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The problem with most business books is they present a formula for problems that ultimately have no formula. You’re reading something with no practical value and you’re not really learning anything. There is no formula for dealing with complexity that’s always changing. “There’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble,” writes Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book is one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time.

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Most management books focus on how to avoid screwing up – or at least covering your ass if you do. Ben provides insight into what to do after you screw up.

Just because there is no formula doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Advice and experience can help guide us. But that’s the difference between Ben’s book and most: he shows you what it’s really like to make hard decisions, without offering you a three step formula. Horowitz walks you through his considerations, deliberations, thoughts, mistakes, regrets, difficulties. Through that journey, we learn. “Circumstances may differ, but the deeper patterns and the lessons keep resonating.”

Fear. Here is an interesting point on fear that’s representative and telling.

It taught me that being scared didn’t mean I was gutless. What I did mattered and would determine whether I would be a hero or a coward. I have often thought back on that day, realizing that if I’d done what Roger had told me to do, I would have never met my best friend. That experience also taught me not to judge things by their surfaces. Until you make the effort to get to know someone or something, you don’t know anything. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all.

Seeing the world though different lenses.

Looking at the world through such different prisms helped me separate facts from perception. This ability would serve me incredibly well later when I became an entrepreneur and CEO. In particularly dire circumstances when the “facts” seemed to dictate a certain outcome, I learned to look for alternative narratives and explanations coming from radically different perspectives to inform my outlook. The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.

We can’t do everything.

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”
Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”
“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.
Again, I replied, “No, what?” He said, “Divorce.”

Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously. But his joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family. By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. In my mind, I was confident that I was a good person and not selfish, but my actions said otherwise.

The best thing about startups.

Marc (Andreessen): “Do you know the best thing about startups?”
Ben: “What?”
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”

The type of friends you need in your life.

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Doing the hard things, not the fun things. Ben had a lot of mentors, Bill Campbell was one of them. Being present and letting people know where they stand is incredibly important. Four star General Stan McChrystal couldn’t have been the leader he was without being out there with the troops sleeping in the same conditions with the same risk. Here is an incredibly important lesson on leadership that most people miss.

After seven weeks, we came to an agreement with EDS. They would buy Loudcloud for $ 63.5 million in cash and assume its associated liabilities and cash burn. We would retain the intellectual property, Opsware, and become a software company . EDS would then license our software to run both Loudcloud and the larger EDS for $ 20 million per year. I thought it was a great deal for both EDS and us. It was certainly far better than bankruptcy. I felt 150 pounds lighter. I could take a deep breath for the first time in eighteen months. Still, it wouldn’t be easy. Selling Loudcloud meant selling about 150 employees to EDS and laying off another 140.

I called Bill Campbell to tell him the good news: The deal was signed and we would be announcing it in New York on Monday. He replied, “Too bad you can’t go to New York and be part of the announcement; you’ll have to send Marc.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job.” Damn. He was right. I sent Marc to New York and prepared to let people know where they stood. That small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again. Only a CEO who had been through some awful, horrible, devastating circumstances would know to give that advice at that time.

Figuring out what the customer wants is the innovator’s job. And innovation requires a combination of skills.

It turns out that is exactly what product strategy is all about—figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.

I’ve talked about the important role that coding will play in the future. Horowitz offers a simple lessons for programmers and managers alike: “all decisions were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decisions were emotional.”

Tell it like it is. When you start losing the truth is the first thing to go and everyone sees it.

One of the most important management lessons for a founder/ CEO is totally unintuitive. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

As a young CEO, I felt the pressure— the pressure of employees depending on me, the pressure of not really knowing what I was doing, the pressure of being responsible for tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. As a consequence of this pressure, I took losses extremely hard. If we failed to win a customer or slipped a date or shipped a product that wasn’t quite right, it weighed heavily on me. I thought that I would make the problem worse by transferring that burden to my employees. Instead, I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.

I realized my error during a conversation with my brother in-law, Cartheu. At the time, Cartheu worked for AT& T as a telephone lineman (he is one of those guys who climb the poles). I had just met a senior executive at AT& T, whom I’ll call Fred, and I was excited to find out if Cartheu knew him. Cartheu said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.” At that moment, I knew that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.

Why should you it like it is? A few reasons: it builds trust; smart people will see through the lies anyways; it fosters a positive culture and ensures everyone is working from the same page with the same information. The pressure to be positive as a leader is incredible. People are looking to you and you want to inspire them. But the best way to do that is to be real with them. For example, if you’re trying to foster a culture where failure is ok, but you don’t get up there and talk about one of your massive personal failures, the culture won’t even have a chance to change.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is the best business book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps one of the best ever.

(Image source)

Never Heard of It

I’ve been thinking about this ever since someone sent me Lyza’s beautiful article Never Heard of It.

Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.

When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.

I recognized this in myself, this fear of looking like I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t love it. At the same time, there was so much to keep on top of … that to be entirely informed about all of these things wasn’t feasible either, no matter the level of effort.

I decided that I wanted to come to terms with not knowing everything, to be able to say never heard of it and not feel panicky.

Her fear, probably one we all share at some level, wasn’t that she didn’t want to look like she didn’t know what she was doing but maybe that she actually didn’t know what she was doing.

And no one wants to draw attention to themselves by asking a ‘stupid’ question. Or pointing out they don’t know.

In group settings, this has lead to what psychologists call ‘pluralistic ignorance,’a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. This causes huge problems in organizations.

Consider an example. You’re in a large meeting with the senior management of your organization to discuss an initiative that spans across the organization and involves everyone in the room. You hear words come out, someone may even ask you, do you follow? And yes, of course you follow — you don’t want to be the only person in the room without a clue.

“To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence” writes Tim Kreider, “is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.” No wonder we have such a hard time owning up when we don’t know something.

So you walk out of the room wondering what you just agreed to do. You have no idea. Your stress goes up, you run around asking others, and quickly discover they are just as confused as you are.

This project isn’t doomed, it’s just a lot more work now than it needs to be. You either guess at what was intended and take a leap of faith or you spend an endless amount of time and organizational energy chasing this down after the meeting.

Information is coming to us with greater velocity and magnitude. “I don’t know” might be the most powerful admission you can make in the internet era.

Four Questions To Ask Yourself Before Opening Your Mouth

Yoga

A friend passed along a copy of Yoga Wisdom at Work.

The book is a quick read. I took enough away from it to feel like it was time well spent.

One of the best parts of the book for me was on authentic conversations and the right speech.

Here are four questions to consider each time you speak.

1. Is it true?
2. Is it necessary?
3. Is it kind?
4. Does it improve upon the silence?

These can be incorporated into the acronym THINK: True, Helpful, Improves upon the silence, Necessary, and Kind.

Here is the discussion on the three elements of truth that followed:

It is no coincidence that the first question is about truth. That is the standard of satya, the second yama. We see truth as having three facets:

1. Telling the truth as you know it.
2. Being willing to hear another’s truth as they know it.
3. Understanding that many things can be true at the same time.

At work, the third point is an important and often over-looked facet of a truth-telling where version of “What happened here?” and “Who did what?” are numerous and have significant ramifications. When things get derailed or problems arise, trying to untangle “who said what to whom and when” can create an energy-sapping blame game. In addition, claiming that your experience is the only “truth” is the antithesis of learning. The lessons of discovery that spring from understanding multiple points of view, each of which is experienced as true for the individual, get lost in defensiveness and recrimination.

Acknowledging that many things can be true at the same time enhances your ability to truly hear others, be curious about their point of view, and find common understanding that serves the whole.

As Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

THINK before you speak.

(image via blue mountain fitness)