At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like. With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future. (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)
We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy. Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.
None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero. He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas. (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.
Already in our class there is focus on the social, institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale? What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity? Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system? While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off? Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things? (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)
Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements. They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace. But who knows how to do this? And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions? It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators. But that may be too late for most people. The concepts involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.
In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (Random House, 2014). Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least. So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.
Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974, with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.” Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA). The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.” One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was: “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.” He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away. When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.
Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment. Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as: “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.” The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry. There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.” By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]” (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?) Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”
As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach. He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.” Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.
To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:
- “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
- Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
- “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
- “Originality is fragile.”
- “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
- “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
- “Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
- “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
- “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
- “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
- “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
- “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
- “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Dealing with “The Hidden” Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist. He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown. Catmull writes, for instance:
“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models? Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.” This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”
In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.” People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that. His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.
In Sum: It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience. It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.) Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them. Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.