Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

What can Pixar teach us about innovation and change?

“Since change is inevitable, the question is: Do you act to stop it and try to protect yourself from it, or do you become the master of change by accepting it and being open to it? My view, of course, is that working with change is what creativity is all about”. Ed Catmull, “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration”, Random House Canada, 2014.

Creativity inc book image AmazonI start a lot of books these days but I don’t finish that many. I just finished this one and I have to say, it was worth it.

“Creativity Inc” is a story about drive, determination and creativity and how leaders build and sustain a culture of world class innovation.  It is about the application of important change management principles, even if not called out as such. Most of the middle of the book addresses pragmatic approaches that Catmull used at Pixar that every company can modify and apply.

We can learn a great deal from their journey. Start-up innovation might be the most difficult class of “change”.  It involves constantly transforming so as to invent a future that is completely uncharted territory.  Here are a few highlights that resonated with me. 

Transformation is iterative, personal and organizational

From Catmull’s PhD at University of Utah (research funded by ARPA and in the environment where U of U was one of the first four nodes on ARPANET) to his first job at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), he was inventing a new industry – computer animation.  He was driven by personal passion – hands on study and application and constant thirst for the next frontier.  He wrote programs and literally got his own hands dirty doing the work. He immersed himself in his passion and in becoming great at it

As his level of expertise developed so did his thought leadership, performance, results and reputation advanced (in that order).  Concurrently, his integrity and personal character played an important part in developing important relationships based on trust.

Along the way, from NYIT to Lucasfilm to Pixar the organizational challenges outstripped his current capability.  He dug in, build new relationships with partners and developed new organizational capabilities – growing into and experimenting into the challenges.

Creation and innovation, as a particular types of change, are perhaps more terrifying than other types of change

Why? As Catmull puts it:

“The uncreated is a vast, empty space.  This emptiness is so scary that most hold on to what they know, making minor adjustments to what they understand, unable to move on to something unknown.  To enter that place of fear, and to fill that space, we need all the help we can get.”

To come to terms with this, Catmull invests significantly in understanding the bright spots in his organization.  He engages with people to understand their mental models for traversing uncharted territory.  Mental models are born out of need for a frame for thinking through this uncharted territory – out of a level of self awareness designed to “locate” ourselves within the context of the change.

The examples from both directors (the creative spirits who craft the story) and the producers (who make sure a project stays on track, timing and budget) are fascinating.  Whether it is about driving, skiing, sailing, running a maze or working on an archeological dig, all of the models provide a sense of context and progress.

Mindfulness is a powerful guide through transformation

In several places Catmull speaks to the need to be flexible, eg to both have a plan and to be prepared to modify it.  As he puts it to Ann Le Cam, head of Disney Animation:

“Instead of setting forth a “perfect” route to achieving future goals (and sticking to it unwaveringly), I wanted Ann to be open to readjusting along the way, to remaining flexible, to accepting that we would be making it up as we go.”

This is not an easy concept to get comfortable with. Most of us like certainty.  This requires being comfortable with a level of uncertainty.

Another of the techniques Catmull advocates for dealing with this is mindfulness:

“Most people have heard of the Eastern teaching that it is important to exist in the moment. It can be hard to train yourself to observe what is right now (and not to bog down in thoughts of what was and what will be), but the philosophical teaching that underlies that idea – the reason that staying in the moment is so vital – is equally important: Everything is changing.  All the time.  And you can’t stop it.  And your attempts to stop it actually put you in a bad place. It causes pain, but we don’t seem to learn from it. Worse than that, resisting change robs you of your beginner’s mind-your openness to the new.”

Learning to thrive in that middle place, having and executing on a plan while maintaining a ready stance to modify direction, is an active approach to change.  It promotes a light level of control over ambiguity and requires maintaining a level of mindfulness –focussed on the now with a recognition of where we are in the timeline.

What else can we take from Catmull’s story?

Finding your U of U

There are elements of good fortune in Catmull’s story.  He began his education in a hotbed of innovation at U of U.  He met and worked with some of the greatest minds of our generation, including George Lucas and Steve Jobs.  However, he earned these opportunities through the hard work and passion he invested in his “craft” – this is actually the key.  It was his own deep exploration of the field that opened doors for him.  All of us have this same opportunity – yet most will take the safer paths.

Where is the hotbed of innovation of your passion? Can you spend time there? Immerse yourself there from time to time?  In some cases this is an educational venue (but rarely IMHO when it comes to understanding strategy execution or organizational change).  Perhaps it is a conference or a thought leader or an association.  Seek out those places and spend time there.

“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”

From the get go, according to the story, Catmull surrounded himself with smart people, perhaps smarter than himself he acknowledges – and relied on character, relationships and their combination of strengths to propel the organizations forward.  He notes that this requires candid and vigorous debate.  He submits that this is essential to innovation – this resonates with me even as I see so little of it in organizations today.

He speaks at length about the “Braintrust”, a working group of respected colleagues who convene at milestones to provide feedback, and the need for honesty: “Believe me, you don’t want to be in a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you and, when you find them, hold them close.”

Who are the ‘smartest’ people in your field? The thought leaders who got us here? The renegades, upstarts and pioneers who are experimenting to take us into the next generation? Find them and track with them – follow their blogs, books and presentations.

Have you found bright people, like-minded enough but also different enough, willing to level with you about the state of the field and your “game”?

So much to think about.  Have you read “Creativity, Inc.”?  What did you take away from it?

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4 Comments so far
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Hello Gail. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a facinating read.

Who are the ‘smartest’ people in your field? Well personally, I think that you are one of them. I enjoy (and benefit from) your ability to investigate, evaluate, and ruminate.

Thanks for all you do.

Comment by Faith Fuqua-Purvis

Means a lot coming from someone who I have similar respect for. Thanks so much. Gail

Comment by Gail Severini

I had already started to read this book when your post came out and I just finished it last night – I found it incredibly human and honest, strong evidence of the candour he searched for in others. I loved those quotes you used and found many more that I am going to use going forward.

In that same section about being mindful he states that the ultimate state to reach is being childlike, while he is referring specifically to creativity, it remains true for change – children have not yet learned to fear change and if we can create and nurture this state within our organizations innovation and the related change would come much more easily and rapidly.

There was one mental model that really resonated with me and I think might give us an alternative to the “valley of despair model”. The image is that of a really long tunnel. There comes a point where you cannot see anything, the light from the entrance has faded and the light from the exit is not yet visible – you cannot see your way forward – this could be a really scary place to be, however, it is a tunnel, and you know that it has an end. All you gave to do is keep moving forward and eventually the light of the exit will appear, and as you walk it gets brighter and brighter with each step until, before you know it you are in the light of day.

Catmull is fiercely introspective and shares his struggles, mistakes as well as their successes in a very humble and insightful way. I will also recommend this book to all of my friends – and will read it again, because I think there is a lot more Incan get out of this book.

Comment by Paul E. Kohn

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the book, Paul! I had overlooked the tunnel metaphor – thanks for raising that.

Comment by Gail Severini

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