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Learning from other people’s creativity.

Posted by Damien on October 13, 2011

I typically like to read anything about the world’s most successful animation studio Pixar, as I’m fascinated by the process of design, creativity and the making of things. I like to pull from things I read that could inspire our work or what I teach. As luck would have it, Fast Company recently published a piece titled: The Inside Story: 5 Secrets to Pixar’s Success. Written by the very smart CEO and founder of the hybrid strategy consulting firm Jump Associates. Though this time I was disappointed as I read the 5 weak Secrets about the animation studio as if they were some kind of Cosmo tips for a better relationship. And this made me think a little about a: how eager we are for short, nicely distilled secrets to other people’s success, and how poorly people often distill those secrets and apply them to other situations. I’m all for sharing your interpretation of someone else’s success, I just think it needs to be handled correctly so as to not end up minimizing the actual truth and end up spreading some false logic at how you too could be successful like the story you’re hearing about.

[Illustration of Pixar Talk by Jonathan Gabrio]

Illustration from FastCo Article, by Jonathan Gabrio

For the Fast Company Article, the former CTO of Pixar, Oren Jacob, was interviewed by Patnaik under a new version of the Chatham House Rule known as “What happens in Vegas” rule, so its conceivable that there were some incredibly juicy secrets exposed there that we’ll never know about.

The first point that I stumbled over was #4 Match the Medium to the Message. Where Patnaik makes the suggestion that you should try a variety of different media to find out what works best for you and your organization in pitching new ideas. He does this based on the story that the former CTO, Jacob decided to pitch his concept for new software using 50 pages of sketches because “storyboards are the currency of the building”. And then Patnaik goes on to say that the sketches worked, it got approved and Patnaik developed his software.

I don’t imagine it really was that simple. There’s not enough in that legend to say that it should become a rule. What Jacob was really talking about was storytelling versus presenting.

Storytelling definitely has a lot to do with picking the right media to deliver the story – but crafting the story, creating the content, and presenting it all have a considerable amount of weight in achieving success. So for me, my instant question to Jacob would be: “Wow, that almost sounds as if storyboarding your pitch ensured success, do you think there were other reasons or other things you put into that pitch that made it successful?” And to that he might have answered, well yeah- he’d put considerable effort into telling the story from the point of view of using the software and what it would be like for the company. In there he’d also used humour and personally acted out some of the scenarios he was trying to have his audience envision. And oh by the way, he happens to be an excellent illustrator (having been an engineer) so it didn’t hurt that his work looked good too. But if he were to use storyboards a second time to pitch designing new software, it might just be that it could be then considered a gimmick.

So when I reread Patnaik’s fourth inside secret to Pixar’s success, I’d say that the post-rationalization to take from it should instead be the following:

Perfection can be alienating. Sometimes, it is far better to present your very well thought out idea in sketch form, even presenting scenarios or cartoons of how it might really exist in the real world. What this has to offer that a typical Powerpoint, Keynote or screen-based presentation doesn’t is that the sketching feels more approachable, and that your audience has room and an opportunity to get involved in the development of your idea. They can potentially become stakeholders along the development of your idea, or just feel comfortable in diving into something that doesn’t look too wrapped up, too polished that there’s nothing to do but either like it or dislike it. Added to which, in a less resolved scenario, it relies on you to do more of the presenting.

Sketch by Dave Gray XPLANE

Sketch by Dave Gray XPLANE

So this is something Pixar does really well. They also understand Voltaire’s statement: “The Perfect is the enemy of the good”. And they embed this throughout their creation process. They don’t make a perfect movie and pitch it to senior execs, but rather sketch stories out, pin them up on boards, then act them out in order to get the people in the room excited. This is something you can do too- No it’s not that weird.

Imagine you’re presenting a new mobile wellness app to some senior execs at ATT. Showing them a beautifully rendered iPhone with different screens against a white background on a screen is nothing compared to you passionately explaining what is going on in a row of pinned up, hand-sketched storyboards, that have all the same details your renderings would have, but a whole world of imagination as well. Added to which, and this might be the most important part- there’s something very powerful about hand sketches. They are incredibly inviting, with their imperfections, but yet clearly show talent and skill. People still marvel at those who can illustrate by hand. Mix this with your passion, imagination and smart thinking- you’ve got a better chance of convincing people of something that should exist that doesn’t already.

So rule #4 is in fact all about about storytelling, and that any time you’ve got an audience for one of your ideas, or some kind of knowledge you are sharing- you’ve got a platform for telling a story. So think about all the different ways you could tell that story and move people to truly have empathy for what you’re sharing. Do take from the Pixar story that you should use different media appropriately for different occasions. But above all, every presentation is an excuse for Pixar-type storytelling, never miss an opportunity to be a great, passionate storyteller. And because of that I’d rewrite the #4 rule to be: Great Storytelling moves people, Powerpoint doesn’t.

So as I read through the rest, there were other such missed observations. Here’s one more: #5 Hire for Excellence. If you take a look at the image of an illustration at the top of this piece (or at the beginning of the article on Fast Company) you can see in the bottom right hand corner of Jonathan Gabrio’s illustration a How Do you Hire? question. Patnaik completely misses this out in his focus on excellence. And it jumped out for me. (sorry)

What I do like the is point to look out for excellence in potential candidates and how it shouldn’t matter what kind of excellence someone has achieved, so long as they have experienced it. I think it is spot on to reinforce this. But there in that illustration is this point: Extraordinary accomplishment in your life- and then “it is difficult to train for this”. I think this could more than just achieving peer-respected excellence in your field or interest.

The NGO Ashoka has found an interesting pattern in those that it appoints as Ashoka Fellows. If you’re not aware of this Ashoka helps to launch leading social entrepreneurs by electing Fellows into its network. Now with over 2,000 fellows around the world grown over the last 30 years, Ashoka noticed a single common trait in most of the people who went through the selection process for a Fellowship. Almost all of the people had overcome a extraordinary event in their early adulthood, where they had do something incredible to survive or change things for themselves and possibly their family. And this is important because of the developmental stage someone goes through at that age, and for them to have had that experience. Yet I don’t believe even Ashoka would translate this into a rule. But then they weren’t asked by Fast Company to write a short piece.

Now this reframes excellence a little to not just mean quality but to also mean outstanding.

But you can’t ask people: What massive thing did you have to overcome when you were 11-13? Because for some puberty might have been the thing that comes to mind, or perhaps changing schools. And you can’t train adults how to have the thing built into them: the ability to overcome an extraordinary event and turn it into something of excellence, but you can find those people and listen to their stories.

So rather than just looking for what someone might have done that is excellent in their late 30s- why not find out what they’re made of and what they did in the earlier developmental stages of their lives as they became adults. If you look at that, you might find that this person didn’t just brute-force a product of excellence, but has it in them as their core DNA. Soon you could find yourself surrounded not just with people who can code, design, synthesize or whatever to an excellent standard, but are remarkable in their own right and take your organization way beyond what you could imagine doing on your own.

So here, I’d rewrite #5 as: Hire for extraordinary events of excellence. But then you’d have to include all that stuff about Ashoka.

In my view the first point he makes is instead about courage and self-confidence. Not the ability to say something sucks. And I’m kind of at a loss for #3 as to how Patnaik tries to tie it into how you might look for problems in your new product development. But I do rather like #2: Keep your explanations brief, then hit play quickly.

A lot of us are fascinated by the way people behave, or do what they do, the environments they create to be creative in and how their level of success has been achieved. Working backward to connect the dots is perhaps the only way you can make sense of it all. But I find that too many times the author of such a post-rationalized-dot-connecting piece has oversimplified history and thinly tried to make it connect to an analogous scenario. This is what has happened here. Pixar’s five rules for success are what it does within its walls, with its people and in the world it exists in. Built up over their history. There’s definitely a lot to learn from them. And how they might inspire you in either they way you work, or design your organization is undoubtedly great. But if you’re going to pass it on, you have to be very careful to not boil down those legends into such a tiny element that they’re no longer strictly true, and then make rules depending on them as if they were. Simple rules often require quite a bit of explaining.