Don’t be afraid to engage Ed Cat­mull and his ideas. Cat­mull (@edcatmull) is one of the founders of Pixar (along with Steve Jobs and John Las­seter); and, if you have seen Pixar’s great ani­mat­ed films — from Toy Sto­ry to Frozen — you have seen the bril­liance of the man who is now the pres­i­dent of Walt Dis­ney and Pixar Ani­ma­tion Stu­dios [link].

Cat­mull is also the author (with Amy Wal­lace) of Cre­ativ­i­ty, Inc.: Over­com­ing the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspi­ra­tion [link]. The book has been spot­light­ed by many jour­nal­ists, none bet­ter than the one recent­ly post­ed by Maria Popo­va (@brainpicker) on the Brain Pick­ings web­site [link]. In her review of the book, she notes that Cat­mull is the hap­py blend of opposites:

[H]e is incred­i­bly intel­li­gent in a ratio­nal­ly-dri­ven way yet sen­si­tive to the poet­ic, intro­spec­tive yet artic­u­late, has a Ph.D. in com­put­er sci­ence but is also the recip­i­ent of five Acad­e­my Awards for his ani­ma­tion work. This cru­sade to uncou­ple fear and fail­ure is thus deliv­ered not with the detached and vacant preach­i­ness of self-help books and lifestyle man­u­als but with the sen­si­tive sagac­i­ty of some­one who has been, and con­tin­ues to be, on the front lines of tru­ly pio­neer­ing cre­ative work.

What’s the book about? There is a ded­i­cat­ed web­site for the book and its cre­ators. On one page, it lists a num­ber of “take the advice of an expe­ri­ence leader” bul­let points that give you a strong feel for what you will find in the book itself, for exam­ple [link]:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with some­thing better.
  • If you don’t strive to uncov­er what is unseen and under­stand its nature, you will be ill pre­pared to lead.
  • The cost of pre­vent­ing errors is often far greater than the cost of fix­ing them.
  • A com­pa­ny’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­ture should not mir­ror its organ­i­sa­tion­al struc­ture. Every­body should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Do not assume that gen­er­al agree­ment will lead to change — it takes sub­stan­tial ener­gy to move a group, even when all are on board.

People Jumping On StairsI’m sure you get the feel: Cat­mull wants to encour­age a fear-free organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture in order to spur both cre­ativ­i­ty and productivity.

I’ve seen many com­pa­nies sup­pressed by abun­dant fears. Peo­ple don’t want to be crit­i­cized (or fired) so they hug the sta­tus quo to the point that any ideas for improve­ment are sti­fled. This is a crit­i­cal prob­lem for a NextSen­sor who works in such a firm. Nextsens­ing is about the future, and what makes future-tense prob­lems dif­fer­ent — and more dif­fi­cult — is the inher­ent ambi­gu­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty they rep­re­sent. That is why fail­ure must be an expect­ed part of the organ­i­sa­tion­al equa­tion. The met­ric for suc­cess is learn­ing (as in how much) and not accu­ra­cy of pre­dic­tion. We should not be look­ing for a fore­cast but rather a nov­el point of view that illu­mi­nates under­stand­ing and meaning.

Cat­mull advo­cates call­ing out, embrac­ing and bring­ing light to mis­takes. Agreed! Such behav­iours are the trig­gers for learn­ing. So start doing it. Watch the novice skate­board­er try­ing to learn a new trick and deter­mined to make it hap­pen; he or she tries and tries and tries. Mis­takes in exe­cu­tion occur; the body gets scraped. The skate­board­er gets back up and, after fig­ur­ing out how to do the trick after a few more times, inher­ent­ly begins think­ing about, look­ing for, and exper­i­ment­ing with the next trick. Yes­ter­day’s skat­ing trick is yes­ter­day’s news. 

Oh, by the way, seri­ous skate­board­ers wear a hel­met and pads (knee and elbow) because they expect to fall. It’s part of mas­ter­ing the next tool in the ulti­mate skate­board­ing skill set. The idea is to stretch one’s lim­its and there­by grow.

Dan Schaw­bel (@DanSchawbel) on the Forbes web­site inter­viewed Cat­mull [link] and, in one part of the Q&A, he pro­vid­ed a real-life tes­ta­ment to my skate­board­ing analogy:

Schaw­bel: Many com­pa­nies fear risk tak­ing. How do you enable it and why is it so impor­tant to your business?

Cat­mull: It is not the manager’s job to pre­vent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them. What does this mean in prac­tice? It means being encour­ag­ing, of course, when some­one comes up with an idea – a movie about a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, to use Rata­touille as an exam­ple – that may at first seem far-fetched. But it also means that when a far-fetched idea fails to pan out, you must make it clear in ways both explic­it and implic­it that there is no shame in that. It is only by try­ing new things that we can hope to cre­ate prod­ucts that are orig­i­nal. Don’t just say those words; act like you believe them.

Fear is present-tense; aspi­ra­tion is future-tense. Suc­cess­ful lead­ers man­age the inher­ent ten­sion between present-tense and future-tense prob­lems and know which they are — and need to be — deal­ing with at any giv­en moment. The best com­pa­nies I have worked in embrace the ten­sion for all it is worth and wres­tle with it as a source of insight and inspi­ra­tion. The com­pa­nies dom­i­nat­ed by fear seem to give every employ­ee a ham­mer and require them to see every new idea as a nail. Ed Cat­mull teach­es us that there is a bet­ter way.

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