Sunday, July 13, 2014

A manager's manager

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business management, creativity, film industry

I had quite a variety of supervisors and managers in nearly 50 years on the job. A very few were both incompetent and unlikable, but most were at least sufficiently likable to be tolerable, while a very few were excellent in both ways. The big puzzle is those who were very enjoyable as friends, but quite out of their depth as managers. Fortunately I outlasted all of them, and my last manager was one of the best: just as technically skilled as I, very likable, and very skilled with people. (And to those who say "a manager is a manager" and think someone with no technical skills can manage technical people, I say a big "B***SH**!!")

A prime function of managers is to be an umbrella. All too often they are instead the primary source of the "rainfall" that stifles those who work for them. I was once given a few people to supervise, to see if I had management potential. It didn't take long for me to find I was quite poor at all those things I wished a manager or supervisor to do well, so I backed out of that track and returned to a purely technical career. I did, however, learn to manage my managers, a necessary skill for most technical people.

Over the years I have read a number of "leadership" books. A quick look at my bookshelf reveals The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey; Who Moved My Cheese? by Johnson; Leading the Revolution by Hamel; Managing From the Heart by Bracey, Rosenblum, Sanford and Trueblood; Where Have All the Woolly Mammoths Gone by Frost, and Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching.

Better than all of them by far is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. While Ed Catmull has formidable technical expertise, he shines as a leader. He is presently president of three studios, Pixar Animation, Disney Animation, and DisneyToon. That's three pretty big hats for a man pushing 70.

He writes that the book is not a memoir, nor a history of Pixar and his career, but a travelogue of his development as a manager who continually strove to manage creative people in a way that unleashed their potential. In the introduction he concludes, "…managers must loosen controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust…clear the path…and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear." (p. xvi)

It hasn't been easy. The book is organized around the four stages of his own growth, with the titles

  • Getting Started
  • Protecting the New
  • Building and Sustaining
  • Testing What We Know
A key understanding is that what is working today may not work in the future; not all measures that incorporate a small group into a powerful working unit are effective in a larger setting—but some are!; and that something that works well may still be better replaced by something that works even better.

All my career, particularly at the company from which I retired after about 30 years, I heard the slogan "Continuous Improvement". Usually, that is what it remained, a slogan. Only in rare instances could a "leader" accept a suggestion for something that might truly be an improvement. Idea after idea died a-borning. Whether the idea killer was "Not Invented Here" syndrome or simply the blazing glare of early scrutiny, the usual reactions to new ideas strongly dissuaded creative people from expressing themselves.

As you might guess, I most strongly identify with the second principle. You know the expression, "A face only a mother could love"? (It goes for fathers also.) This is our son two days after he was born. He already looked a lot better than he had the first day. But this is nothing like he looks now!! This illustrates what Catmull calls the Ugly Baby principle.

A new idea may not need 15-20 years of feeding, cleaning and training, but in the film industry at least, it takes a couple of years to work out a lot of "ugly" and create beauty in its place. As I read, I was astonished at the changes that were made to some iconic Pixar films, such as Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. If the descriptions of these projects in their early stages are at all accurate, a too-early production of any of them would have been truly ugly. Or, at the least, simply bombed in the box office, leaving puzzled and disgruntled audiences wondering why they paid to see it.

From the time Steve Jobs bought Pixar in 1985 until he died in 2011, Pixar Animation Studios grew from less than 50 employees to more than 1,100. A theme that runs through the book could be called "growing pains." It is the focus of the third section, which opens with the chapter "Broadening our View". Just as a skyscraper needs a wider foundation than a bungalow, the large enterprise of the new Century needed to extend its breadth of experience. Among 8 lessons described in this chapter, "Learning to See" impressed me most. At a certain point, Catmull and his team decided to train all new hires—not just animators—to use the Pixar software. Thus was born Pixar University, which really took off once they began to teach art.

Contrary to folklore, we really do use all of our brain, we just use various parts at different times (full engagement of every neuron might produce a meltdown under the 500 watts produced). We use our visual cortex, 30% of the entire cortex, every instant that our eyes are open. Still, we do not see everything. Have you seen the basketball-gorilla video? Asked to count how many times people in white jerseys throw a basketball amongst a group of 10, very few notice when someone in a gorilla suit passes through the midst. Further, Catmull notes research that shows more than half of what we "see" is constructed in our brain by hints picked up in our peripheral vision while we are looking at any scene.

A recently popular video shows a rocky forest trail with signs that warn, "Beware of Migrating Snakes", bearing a picture of a coiled rattlesnake. Hidden cameras show most people jumping or backing away from random pieces of branch on or near the path. Had they not been prompted by the warning sign, they'd have seen the branches for what they were immediately.

Drawing requires the artist to set aside the brain's filling-in so as to draw what is really there. Interestingly, people in Pixar who did well in the drawing classes became better at their work, whatever it was.

Regardless of the size of a creative enterprise, the prime enemy is fear. Catmull and his co-leaders have given huge amounts of energy, thought and time to producing an environment that can "uncouple fear and failure" (p. 123). All our lives we are punished for failure, so of course we fear to fail. Only the most stubborn among us can overcome fear and endure a series of failures on the way to a success. Abe Lincoln failed in business four times, and Colonel Sanders went broke seven times. Aren't we all glad they tried one more time? Pixar leadership recognized that they could not rely on a tiny few stubborn people to have all the ideas and push them to fruition. They needed a culture of embracing (but not encouraging!) failure as a necessary part of the process of creation.

Back to the Ugly Baby. A newborn may look ugly to some, and it will be years before its habits are socially acceptable. But that is no reason to destroy the baby. Just as a human child is a learning machine, a properly constituted team can be a creation machine. I think of Ed de Bono's "thinking hats" methods. He also recognized that at the early stages the Black Hat (criticism) had to be excluded from discussions of new ideas. A Pixar film is typically a 4-year project. It may be 3 of those years before the beauty begins to overtake the ugliness.

Film-making is storytelling. Viewers need to identify with the key character(s), or no amount of technical brilliance will help. A skilled cabinet maker uses various tools such as saws and sanders. In my hands, saw cuts are at best "sorta straight" and I have to be careful with the sander, not to sand right through the veneer. But in the hands of a true craftsman, various bits of material are transformed into a beautiful piece of furniture. Yet the piece must be properly designed. A friend recently had his kitchen remodeled. A measurement error led to a space the refrigerator would not fit into. It is a beautiful kitchen, but a big section needed re-work, which cost less than scrapping the fridge and buying a new one.

In any creative enterprise something analogous to such a "measurement error" is all to frequent. In cabinetmaking, the usual waste ratio is around 50%. In film-making, it may exceed 90%. We need to expect similar levels of "waste" in human affairs also. Management, like creation, is full of hidden and unknown factors. In one place, Catmull writes, "If you don't try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead" (p. 169), and "A large portion of what we manage can't be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences" (p. 219, his emphasis). In the latter quote he is reacting to the popular phrase, "You can't manage what you can't measure". It is a damaging falsehood. Measurement is engineering. Human affairs are not engineering problems to be solved with a computer (I almost wrote "slide rule". Showing my age). That's why we call business leaders "managers" not "engineers". You can't engineer something that has a heart.

Ed Catmull has a heart. A big one. He had heart enough to manage his long-term boss, Steve Jobs. He may be second only to Steve Job's wife Lauren in his years of contact with him. In the closing chapter of the book he seeks to portray a Steve Jobs freed from the pages of popular journalism, where he is either lauded as a peerless genius or vilified as an inhumane jerk. Yes, he was a genius. He was also a jerk. But he was not only these things. He could grow, and he did. The tasty stories of Steve Jobs berating others in public are from 'way back. To his end, he could be challenging; he was prone to toss out an outrageous notion so he could gauge people's reactions. If you were thin-skinned, it was best to stay under his radar, or go elsewhere. While in the early Pixar days, Ed Catmull mandated that Steve Jobs not attend some creative meetings, years later he was a more welcome presence, not because he had "mellowed", but because he'd grown to see the value of the principles under which Pixar operated, and learned the tolerance for ambiguity and failure that underlay its success.

If I could go back and do it all again, I'd demand to take with me the memory of this book so I could seek out and work for people like Ed Catmull.

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