Lessons from Creativity, Inc.

I try, at least once every couple months, to read a book that is not directly about software development, Scrum, etc. My thinking is that all tech and no business makes Don a dull boy; I really need to develop myself as a leader and developer of employees as much or more than a curator of custom applications.

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull,Cover of the book Creativity Inc.one of the founders of Pixar. You’ve seen his partner’s name (John Lasseter) extensively in Pixar movie credits but you’ll see his name as well if you pay close attention. Ed has an extensive computer science pedigree, including a doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah but bit hard on his pursuit of the first computer-generated movie in the late 80s.

Back to Creativity, Inc. It is a wonderful book and I recommend it to anyone charged with managing or participating in a highly creative professional team – in any field. In one of the chapters Ed goes into an explanation of some things that Pixar does/does differently from other film studios during film development and which he attributes their thus far unbeaten streak of ~14 blockbuster films.

I found so much in a couple of value-packed pages that I want to share them and show it through my personal Scrum/software development lens:

Dailies, or Solving Problems Together

In the fall of 2011, eight months before the release of Brave, a dozen or so animators ambled into the dailies meeting in the screening room at the far end of Pixar’s atrium. It was just after 9am, and more than a few attendees were sipping cups of coffee in an attempt to look alive.

Scrum adherents will recognize the Pixar daily to be a combination of daily standup/daily scrum and product demo. While Catmull is a serious geek, he left the world of hardware and software development long before the 17 signatories cobbled together the Agile Manifesto. Nonetheless, the ideas are so universal, self-evident and effective that we see the concept of cross-functional teams, inspection and incremental creation in feature animation development.

The director Mark Andrews, had stepped in to direct Brave midway through production at the request of John and myself, and he was widely seen as an inspiring leader. A proud descendant of Scotland, where Brave is set, Mark urged his crew to join him in wearing a kilt to work every Friday. Many viewed him as nothing short of a force of nature. “Mark talks to you as if he’s trying to drown out an F5 class tornado behind him – and winning,” is how one animator described him. “I suspect he consumes plutonium pills.” The dailies meeting would do nothing to disprove that suspicion.

“Good morning, everybody! Wake up!” Mark yelled, kicking off an hour-long session during which the assembled animators shared glimpses of the scenes they were bringing to life. Mark watched carefully and gave detailed notes on how to improve each scene and encouraged everyone else in the room – a rigging supervisor, the movie’s producer, its head of story and the other animators – to do so as well. The goal of this meeting, as with all dialing meetings, was to see the shots, together, as they really were.

Time to Share Clock

Dailies are a key part of Pixar culture, not just because of what they accomplish – constructive midstream feedback – but because of how they accomplished it. Participants have learned to check their egos at the door – they are about to show incomplete work to their director and colleagues. This requires engagement at all levels, and it’s our directors’ job to foster and create a safe place for that. Mark Andrews did this at the Brave meeting by being irrepressible: singing ‘80s songs, reveling in people’s nicknames and mocking his own drawing ability as he hurriedly sketched out suggested tweaks.

The Director as Product Owner. Lively and impassioned Product Owners motivate a self-directed team to raise their game to a new level. Their engagement serves as an example for the entire team to evaluate, consider and provide ideas. Candor and trust embolden each team member to know that the objective is to improve the quality of the work product.

“Is that all the energy you got for me today?” he teased one sleepy colleague. To another, whose work he deemed flawless, he shouted the words all animators yearn to hear: “Final that! Bang!” Whether or not all the animators would get that same go-ahead, everyone could count on this: When each finished his or her presentation, the room would burst into applause.

Esprit de corps and relentless pursuit of a team-defined Definition of Done drive the team – but only the Product Owner can impart the mantle of Done.

This wasn’t a pep rally, though. The critiques that were offered were specific and meticulous. Every scene was prosecuted relentlessly, and each animator seemed to welcome the feedback. “Is that stick big enough for everybody?” Mark asked at one point, referring to a flimsy-looking branch that was supposed to keep a heavy door propped open in one scene. Several people didn’t think so, and as Mark scribbled with a stylus on a tablet in front of him, a sturdier log appeared on the screen on the front of the room. “Better?” he asked. One by one, each scene that the group reviewed raised new issues. That old man who just ran up a flight of stairs? He should look more winded. The facial expression of a young spy? It could be more devilish. “Chime in!” Mark urged. “Sound off!”

Team members responsible for each unit of work present their own work product, advocate and take input on fine points all in service of improving the quality of the product – with the smallest amount of personal pride getting in the way as possible.

For all the barking and levity, you could feel the focused concentration in the room. What these people were engaged in was the kind of detailed analysis – and openness to constructive criticism – that would determine whether merely good animation would become great. Mark bore down on ten frames in which Queen Elinor, the mom character who has turned into a bear, walks on stones while traversing a creek. “She looks like she’s stepping more catlike than heavy-bear-like,” he said. “I like the overall speed, but I’m no feeling the weight. She’s walking like a ninja.” Everybody nodded and – note taken – they moved on.

Relentless prosecution of Acceptance Criteria, incremental improvement and utterly complete shippable units of work are the obsession of the Pixar crew.

Dailies are a master class in how to see and think more expansively, and their impact can be felt throughout the building. “Some people show their scenes to get critique from others, others come to watch and see what kind of notes are being given – to learn from their peers and from me – my style, what I like and dislike,” Mark told me. “The dailies keep everyone in top form. It’s an intimidating room to be in because the goal is to create the best animation possible. We go through every single frame with a fine-toothed comb, over and over and over again. Sometimes there are full-on debates because, truly, I don’t have all the answers. We work it out together.”

Team Collaborating

I give this glimpse into a dailies session because sharing and analyzing a team’s ongoing work every morning is, by definition, a group effort – but it does not come naturally. People join us with a set of expectations about what they think is important. They want to please, impress and show their worth. They really don’t want to embarrass themselves by showing incomplete work or ill-conceived ideas, and they don’t want to say something dumb in front of the director. The first step is to teach them that everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions. When they realize this, the embarrassment goes away – and when the embarrassment goes away, people become creative.

Deep and transparent inspection is a bedrock of Pixar’s creative process. Openness, lack of personal agenda and continual benefit to the organization take time to develop but once the team has organized, its self-direction is powerful.

By making the struggles to solve the problems safe to discuss, then everyone learns from – and inspires – one another. The whole activity becomes socially rewarding and productive. To participate fully each morning requires empathy, clarity, generosity and the ability to listen. Dailies are designed to promote everyone’s ability to be open to others, in the recognition that individual creativity is magnified by the people around you. The result: We see more clearly.

I don’t think we can argue with the outcome.

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