Every organization needs at least some of its workers to think outside of the box. Whether that means they wallpaper their cubes in sketches of anthropomorphic racecars, write stunning copy for a website or just find a better shortcut to developing cells in an Excel spreadsheet, the point is creative people are assets to pretty much any industry.
But as necessary as creative employees can be, managing them is just as important if a company is going to meet its business goals, and meet them well. So how do you lead off-the-walls creative people to the right walls?
Perhaps one of the best places to look for an answer is Pixar Animation, a company that uses computer programs and coding to create talking toys, white-collar monsters, gourmet-cooking rats and other fantastical concoctions for the enjoyment of moviegoers.
Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s founders and the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, has firsthand experience not only cultivating but leading a group of creative geniuses through the inception, production and post-project phases of the companies’ biggest successes. His 2014 book “Creativity, Inc.” (which he co-wrote with Amy Wallace) documents the trials and triumphs of his team, as well as the management styles that worked for each situation — and ones that didn’t.
One of the key challenges Catmull faced since his time at Pixar was getting creative groups to conquer their fears of failure and rejection. If his employees were afraid of being candid with each other or sharing their ideas at meetings, that ounce of inspiration would be missing from the overall weight driving the company.
All of that probably just garnered a resounding “Duh” from readers, but the solution might not be as obvious. For example, sometimes it just takes a change in environmental dynamics.
One of the first anecdotes shared in the book is about the meeting space where the production team would gather to discuss current projects. Originally, they would sit at a long table with place cards and extra seating along the walls, a typical meeting setup. But Catmull realized all of the attention was placed on the people sitting in the middle of each side, with those sitting on the outside edges and against the wall having to physically lean in to join the conversation. It made them feel marginalized, which meant they weren’t as willing to participate and didn’t feel like part of the team.
A trip to the furniture store later, and the meeting room now had a round table — and a far better environment to incorporate everyone’s voice. King Arthur wasn’t too far off, apparently.
But physical change wasn’t enough. Catmull wrote in his sum-up at the end of the book that “If there is fear in an organization, there is a reason for it. Our (the managers’) job is to find what’s causing it, to understand it and to try to root it out.”
Instead of going at the problem full-steam ahead or just verbally encouraging employees to be more candid and open, it’s important to go to the source of the problem. For Pixar, it wasn’t just the physical table holding people back: it was mostly a fear of rejection. As a self-proclaimed creative person constantly in awe of the capable people around her, I understand where the employees were coming from. Imagine sitting down with the guys who created iconic characters like Woody and Buzz Lightyear and being asked what you think of their new film’s main protagonist. There might be serious flaws, but do you really want to point them out in case they’re just in your head?
But as Catmull points out, that’s a problem, and leaders are the solution.
No one in an organization should hold that much glory over the rest, and that mentality starts when leaders are candid with each other and show they’re not afraid to talk about mistakes and their part in making them. “My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable in high-stakes situations,” Catmull wrote. “What I want to do is loosen its grip on us.”
And once that grip is loosened, creative employees are more likely to take flight — and if they don’t, at least they’ll fall with style. As Catmull points out, failure can be a good thing, too.
Stay tuned for Part Two next week, when I’ll be discussing how leaders can teach their teams to embrace failure — and how to avoid the pitfalls of ego while doing so.
- 5 Forces Shaping the Future of HR
- Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’
- Implicit bias affects us all
- Leadership development should begin with “why” — and that’s usually not behavior change
- Change is incumbent on all of us
- Visions and missions — defining your value and purpose proposition
- The Reskilling Revolution versus the ‘clay layer’