Imagine you are a civil engineer, an analytic person with high standards. If you saw your toddler working hard to build a structure out of blocks, and he turned to you asking “Daddy, how do you like my castle?” Would you praise the child, or offer constructive criticism with a Sheldon Cooper-like biting honesty that would be sure to evoke tears? Presumably most of us would choose the tactic of complementing the structure regardless of the way it looked.
While perhaps this approach may work well during a child’s formative years, I wonder how we learn to modify our behaviors into adulthood. Consider that making mistakes is a pretty common occurrence in life, and at work. I imagine most would agree that making fewer mistakes would be better, and so the ability to provide constructive feedback MUST be a natural course of events in the adult world of work. Shouldn’t it?
Yet whether it is years of child psychology indoctrination or the fact that most of us have had bad experiences giving “honest” feedback to colleagues, but far too often, we shy away from truth and we value conflict avoidance over frankness.
The truth is no one appreciates criticism. It is seldom pleasant, makes us defensive and can bring to the surface feelings of self-doubt that are never buried far enough from the surface. Yet the inability to have open and honest conversations at work (and at home) can cause us to underperform in immeasurable ways.
A colleague of mine turned me on to the controversial book Imagine: How Creativity Works by John Lehrer. It has a lot to do with the neurobiology of creativity. One of the interesting case examples comes from the hugely successful computer animation powerhouse Pixar whom many credit with revolutionizing the world of animation in ways Roger Rabbit would never have imagined.
How does a company achieve such high levels of prowess over a decade or more (eons in the tech industry) continuing to push the envelope with each new project they complete? Can you really create a company culture that increases the odds that creativity happens?
Well perhaps so. There’s this thing they do at Pixar called plussing. It, simply put, is “a technique that allows people to improve ideas without using harsh or judgmental language.” During production meetings, instead of merely shooting down ideas, every criticism must come with a plus, with a better idea attached. The idea was initially attributed to the Walt Disney Company whose animators used this method to productively challenge themselves to press their art form further, back in the day. Perhaps it is something that comes from improvisational theater where the cardinal rule is “accept every offer” which means that whatever line or situation your stage partners toss in your direction should be accepted and built upon.
Well, plussing is the same idea. Jim Dunbar’s research describes this Pixar example:
“Consider the situation where a director is working with an animator on a scene. The director may not like much about the entire sequence. However, she will identify one aspect of the scene she does like (perhaps the movement of the main character) and then say “I like how Huck’s body twists as he swings the bat and what if he were to smile as he does that?” Now the animator has some feedback to build on. Notice that “and” does not imply judgment as the word “but” would have. Rather, “and” opens up the possibilities for discussing ideas and thoughts.”
What a simple way to train your people to think about propelling continuous improvement by making subtle suggestions building on the GOOD things within anyone’s work. This seems far better than confronting what we dislike. That approach slows you down, and distracts people from expending energy building things better.
I remember reading about a Disney University training exercise where one member of a group seated around the table is asked to offer a simple idea. This person might say something like “we should create a new thrill ride based on the Avengers.” The next person must accept this offer without question and build upon it saying something like “YES, and we can have cars built resembling each or the main characters.” The third person then builds further saying, “And the sound track should be different based on the character whose car they are riding in.” This continues until they make it all around the table and people gained practice building on the ideas of others.
Other aspects of Pixar’s Culture
At Pixar, everyone accepts the premise that WE ARE GOING TO SCREW UP. That is their starting emotional state. And it is OK that they do. What produces success is the collective ability to recognize that when first tries are not good enough, they need to quickly try a different approach. The company uses a process of storyboarding (making hand sketches of key scenes on paper) before converting them to a computer screen. On a movie like Finding Nemo or WALL-E, there might be 60,000-90,000 individual story boards. The Fast Company article referenced below cites Joe Ranft, one of Pixar’s master storyboard artists who says this about the storyboarding process: “Sometimes the first try works, while other times a dozen or more passes are required.” Very often the first version just isn’t good enough.
At this company this continuous improvement fanaticism continues through the very end of the production process when the films are shown to test audiences. Very often, they get even more feedback about scenes that the audiences “didn’t get” in the way the animators or directors had intended. They don’t get frustrated . . . they just go back to the drawing board.
What in the end seems like a flawless art form is in fact, the product of tireless rework, hard work and reconstruction. It also comes from the ability to plus their work at every step along the way. That’s how they achieve the highest levels of execution that we marvel at on the big screen.
(Watch economist Tim Harford speak about the importance of creating a culture of dissent.)
In his new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford says he thinks that in Pixar’s unique culture preventing errors is not the goal, it is more about learning to identify them and fix them quickly and without having a negative stigma attached to you for making the error in the first place. After all, errors are inevitable. Let’s stop pretending otherwise, and forget about assessing blame, and get on with the more interesting process of learning from them, and then making things better.
Pixar’s Motto: Going from Suck to Nonsuck, from Fast Company
Accepting Criticism, from In-Touch Ministries
How to Take Feedback: Learn to give and get criticism, from Psychology Today