Building Creative Teams

Building Creative Teams

Every week (almost) people who subscribe to my special email newsletter (you can do that by entering your email on the right side of the Web page) get an additional insight either on the industry or something relating to leadership.

Recently I shared thoughts from Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation.

This book could be called a creativity course, leadership guide, or a history of Pixar. Another take would be “working with Steve Jobs.” The heart of the book really contains a story about how to build and maintain great creative teams.

I use the term “story” on purpose. When a bunch of computer graphics geeks decided they wanted to make animated movies a new way, they discovered they needed to learn the elements that lend power to story. And then came Toy Story, Cars, and the rest.

Most of you are leading teams of engineers, or you are engineers, or you may think that the kind of creativity necessary to make a great movie has nothing to do with you. You would be wrong. Even engineers who are made fun of in the press as narrow-minded, geeky, focused problem solvers must be creative or they will fail to solve the important problems.

On the other hand, many of you are bringing new products to market. You live in obvious creative cycle.

Let’s look at building and managing a team. I can think of the times in my life where I was building teams and failed. If I had read this book then….

I’ve led or been a part of some fabulous teams. We accomplished much and had fun doing it. Then there are the painful experiences. There was the time I brought in a too-young admin, an insecure salesman, another salesman who spent more time plotting about how to replace me than in selling. Talk about dysfunction. And it was all my fault. Ouch.

Catmull discusses valuing people as the core practice. Candor and transparency are key interaction values. When the executive team sensed something was amiss at Pixar after many years of successes, the diagnosis was that people stopped taking risks and they stopped giving rigorous feedback to the creators.

Success during the creative cycle requires open and honest collaboration. The type of interactions that, when a status meeting is called, people are free to point out anything that looks like it needs fixing—as long as the criticism deals with a problem and not on a person.

The conclusion of the book includes an afterword talking about the Steve Jobs that Catmull worked with for 26 years.This is worth reading far more than all the biographies I’ve read. He also leaves us with several pages of bullet points of values and learnings. I’ll share just a couple to whet your appetite.

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.
  • When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.
  • If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
  • There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.
  • If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.

Want a more effective team? Read this book, think about it, share and discuss it with your team.

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