Leadership and Play

I was talking with a friend while on vacation, and he told me about a TED talk he heard. It was given by someone from the armed forces who was trying to figure out what made a good leader. In his opinion, the number one thing that made a good leader was making one’s followers feel safe. When people feel rushed, or in danger, they don’t make good decisions. People need to feel safe to be able to take the time to think through the options – and to even have a calm enough brain to think of options. When people feel scared, our minds flood with all the fight or flight or freeze chemical reactions, and there is no chance for rational thinking.

I immediately thought about all my study of play at work. Play is imperiled when people don’t feel safe. People aren’t willing to take risks and try new things if they think they will be judged, or fired, or mocked. And people stop feeling free to be creative and playful starting around second grade! By the time we reach adulthood, it’s no wonder people are out of the habit of being silly or trying something different.

How do leaders in your organization help people feel safe? How do people in your family help each other feel safe? How can anyone come up with any sort of good idea, especially a creative, new idea, while feeling under pressure, afraid of being criticized, afraid for their safety? I believe that play is one way to set up a safe space. It’s one way to say there is no such thing as failing here, because there is no right or wrong way to play. We will not criticize or make fun of anything that happens in this play space. I believe this is a crucial part of a healthy organization, and if it can’t happen in the office or boardroom or house or classroom, let’s make space for it in the LEGO® Serious Play® room or the craft room or the foam block room.

Creativity, Inc.

Last night I finished reading the book Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. It has a lot of great stuff to say about nurturing creativity in the workplace. I’m going to talk about a couple of his topics here, because I think they matter quite a bit. In any company, not just a “creative” one.

First, I want to talk about failure. What is your organization’s approach to mistakes? Do the higher-ups look for someone to blame? Do they spend a lot of energy trying not to make any mistakes, and then fire people who do make them? Or do they trust their people to clean up any messes they make, and believe that they are all on the same team working for the same goals? One of the directors at Pixar, Andrew Stanton, is quoted as saying “be wrong as fast as you can,” and “fail early and fail fast.” Why? Because you won’t waste valuable time dithering about which choices to make, you’ll keep moving forward and learning even if you realize you have to change direction, and you’ll still have time to fix the inevitable mistakes. If you know you’ll have mistakes, might as well make them as soon as you can so you have the maximum amount of time to fix ’em, right?

That doesn’t mean it feels good to make mistakes. Anything that’s labeled failure is going to be embarrassing and painful. It’s up to the leaders to set up the company culture to allow for playing with new ideas. “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.” (p. 111)

Daniel Pink, in one of his recent books, posited that anything that can be automated is being automated, and anything that can be sent overseas is being sent overseas. What American companies have, that can’t be done more cheaply or more automatically, is innovation and creativity. But companies have their bonus structures based on how much money a project brings in, and who wants to risk their bonus, and the bonuses of everyone on their team, on something unproven? Who wants to tell the investors that they tried something and it didn’t work? That is no fun. But what if everyone understood that some things just don’t work out? That’s part of the cost of R&D, or some other investment in the future. Artists don’t know which piece will be the one that catches someone’s eye, scientists don’t know ahead of time which experiments will be successful or economically useful, musicians don’t know which sound will get hits on YouTube. They have to try things, and see what happens. That’s the nature of doing something new. If you really believe that what your organization does is worth exploring and expanding, you’re going to have to try something new. Fail early, learn, change direction, keep going.

Part of the job of the leadership is protecting new ideas from too much scrutiny before they are ready, but they also need to give honest feedback about the ideas when the time is right. And here Pixar is also ahead of the curve. They’ve got their “Braintrust,” a group of directors who have developed an understanding amongst themselves about giving and receiving feedback. One of the smart things Pixar has done is to recognize what works in this, and to let them keep doing it. And to fix it when it doesn’t work as well any more.

The Braintrust works for a few reasons. For one, everyone in that room is viewed as a peer, not as someone who knows more or less than anyone else. In fact, they are usually other directors who have been through what the current director is going through, and thus their advice is usually appreciated. It’s harder to take critique from marketing, for example, who might be more interested in making money than in an artistic vision. And, more importantly, no one can force their ideas onto anyone else. It’s always left up to the director how to fix the problems that the group identifies. The philosophy is that every idea is better when it’s tested; no one attacks each other, they just push on ideas; and they also know that the director can probably come up with a better solution than they can for the problem. But the director might be too close to the project to see that something isn’t clear to the audience, which is where they can help.

This seems to me to be part of the fail fast system – all things creative start out ugly before they become great. But you can’t wait til something is pretty before showing it around. It has to be tested all along the way, so that it’ll grow strong and true. In your company it might not be a movie – but you can still prototype something quickly to see if it has any value. Don’t wait to show it around, but be careful of who you show it to. While a certain critical eye is necessary, too much criticism can sink a new idea before it learns to float.

Pixar has had a long string of creative, emotionally-authentic, entertaining, box office hit movies, so they’re doing something right. And they’ve now imported their ideas to Disney Animation, which has started making some exciting new movies on their own. So it’s not just a lucky combination of people that makes it work. There’s more to the book, and to what Pixar does to make their movies work, than what I’ve talked about here. But it can be interesting to look around at the rest of the work world. How does your work place compare?

I’m going to leave you with a couple more quotes:

“Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”

“Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”