Thursday, January 7, 2010

Falling Organizations and People versus Ideas

Jeff Atwood caught my attention on twitter a few days ago:
Pixar's cofounder on execution vs. ideas
Antique Billiard BallsThe co-founder was Dr. Ed Catmull, one of the original developers of Pixar's Renderman technology, and a software pioneer in 3d animation. You can read about Catmull in Wikipedia:

The Wikipedia article paints Catmull as some sort of intense computer and physics geek, but the video proves that he is also an inspiring leader. If it wasn't for the fact that I just signed up to join a killer startup company, I'd be pulling all-nighters trying to get a job at Pixar.

Here are some of my notes on his lecture:
Review materials daily. Everyone shows their stuff daily. Get over the embarrassment of having incomplete or imperfect stuff.

Reviews help you know when to stop working. When you're done you're done. Don't keep working on stuff that is good enough.

managers hate to be surprised (i.e. to find that a subordinate has worked on something without the manager's knowledge). Catmull says to the managers: "Get over it. it doesn't matter."

"Success hides problems" People put up with issues because overall things are going well, they are on a successful project. "When you're healthy and have resources, you don't need to address problems."

"We shouldn't think it's ok to be doing something which isn't great." - on the (canceled) Toy Story 2 direct to DVD effort.

"If you know the end of the movie before you start, you don't have a movie."

"If you have a good idea and give it to a mediocre group, they'll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they'll fix it. Or they'll throw it away and come up with something else."

"The goal of 'development' is not to come up with good ideas. It is to come up with groups of people who work well together."

Competitors like to copy the wrong things.

"We have to change the way we do postmortems every single film." Because the next film, the participants will game it.

After each new postmortem, we get a new theory on how to do things. Usually it is 2/3 right and 1/3 wrong.

Pixar originally thought that "the story" was the most important thing. "But then, every studio says the same thing -- even if the story is drivel!" The motto doesn't affect behavior, just like many companies' focus on quality.

Architecture catch phrase: "Build from the inside out". Pixar worked with one architect who said it, but his building was a disaster. This shows the same problem in a different industry: everyone has the same motto but it has no impact on behavior.

"Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use the statement and not have to have a fear of changing behavior."

"Why do successful companies fail? For that matter, why do golden ages end? I do believe that organizations, human organizations, are inherently unstable. They will fall over, and you have to work to keep them upright. But, they fall slowly. Most people don't notice it. They let the success hide it, and blind them. They don't see it falling over. The falling takes place slow, but the collapse is quick. You have to do constant assessment, you have to look for hard truths."

"...There are two fundamental kinds of crises. One is that you don't like what you see, so you have to make changes. And the fact that you make changes in and of itself isn't a crisis, that's just hard work. What makes it a crisis is that there are a lot of people with vested interests and with positions, and you've got to actually rearrange things and it's people butting up against each other and that's a hard thing to do. It's an emotional thing to do. If you do that then you end up making a better film.

The second kind of crisis is that you release a film, and the audience doesn't like it. Now, at that point it's too late to do anything about it. But the difference between the two crises is that the first one is self-imposed, and that's the important part."

"...We have a lot of fun together, and a lot of laughter, and our job is to keep it going."
Some more teasers to encourage you to watch the video:

"It's not good enough. We know we don't have the time, but we're going to do it anyway."

They re-worked Toy Story 2 on a tight schedule, but it was brutal. Employees were injured. Now they limit the amount of time people can work, hired an ergonomist, teach pilates, offer massages, play soccer, offer yoga instruction, and more. The drop in insurance premiums more than covered cost of new programs.

Catmull read lots of business books to get up to speed early on, but didn't get much out of them. Then he tried a business book summary service and realized that the business books were content-free. Or maybe some books had no content, and for the others maybe there is no way to distill the books in a meaningful way.

Finally, these are the operating principals of Pixar as quoted by Catmull:
  • constant review
  • it must be safe for people to tell the truth
  • communication should not mirror the organizational structure
  • people and how they function is more important than ideas
  • do not let success mask problems, do a deep assessment
These ideas shake my bones. Maybe they aren't 100% new, but they're practiced by an incredibly successful and exciting organization. How many organizations can you name that seem to have thought about their culture as much? Neil Davidson: please convince Dr. Catmull to speak at the Business of Software Conference.

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