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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Brad Bird talks on Innovation

One of my favourite movies is the Incredibles - I think the animation and the dialogue are absolutely brilliant and also Pixar is owned by a certain Steve Jobs.

Interestingly there is a McKinsey article out today interviewing the director Brad Bird who has two Oscars - one for the I's and the other for Ratatouille( which wasn't too scruffy either)

He highlights that innovation can come from unexpected places - the Internet came out of the Defence Department originally to set up a communications network that would survive a nuclear attack.

Bird was hired because the owners feared that they were getting complacent after a run of success and hired him to 'shake things up' The owners including Jobs said that he could expect robust discussion but that if he could convince them, they would change the way they did things.

When they were talking about the I's people said that to do this would take ten years and $500 million to do.

He set out to look for the frustrated artists - the people who nobody was listening to because the company was doing well. He listened to these 'black sheep' and gave them the opportunity to run with their ideas and basically slashed the I's production time at a lesser cost.

He was asked whether black sheep make better innovators. Bird says he is looking for involved and engaged people, and they can range from being quiet to very loud and evangelical. A common thread was that they have a restless probing nature and want to get to the problem.

Team dynamic s are also important especially if you have cross functional ones and the managers job is be creative in a harmonious way - imagine a symphony orchestra.

The important thing is to allow people to put their head above the parapet without getting it shot off. If you are the sort of manager who jumps all over people when they disagree then you are not going to get innovation. Once people know that it is OK to challenge their managers thoughts because they have a better idea - then their learning curve in Bird's opinion goes up. Up to a point Lord Copper - at the end of the day, the manager can't abdicate responsibility to the team - he still has to be convinced.

Morale of the team is also important - he reckons that bad morale means that for every $1 you spend then you get 25c of value Vice versa - he thinks it is $1 spent = $3 value. He thinks that companies don't always pay as much attention to morale as they should. He had worked on a number of disaster projects and noted that these were where people didn't feel invested in their work and any efforts to bring up problems were rebuffed.

The interviewers ask him apart from engagement and morale what is important

He says 'The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved. Going back to the complacent company scenario at Pixar. He challenged them and said that this company was founded on doing stuff that was too ambitious. He states in the article " You guys have had nothing but success. What do you do with it? You don't play it safe - you do something that scares you, that's at the edge of your capabilities where you might fail. That's what gets you up in the morning.

I particularly liked that quote as it was the thrust of what Frank Dick said at a talk I attended earlier this week. He referred to the fact that we are at our best working in areas of white water turbulence not calm seas.

One area that he mentions is the presence of a creative culture - and I think that the interesting comment is the creation of a big atrium area which is a central meeting area. However Steve Jobs put the cafeteria, post rooms ,meeting rooms and the bathrooms in the centre. Jobs realised what any good knowledge manager would tell him that when people meet with one another either by design or by serendipity then things happen - social networks are formed and you meet people who might help you make an introduction to a person who might help you.

Interestingly they have a Pixar University (which seems like something that Rover did - but was also used at Walt Disney). I've always believed that learning doesn't stop after university and that learning is life long. However as we grow older with additional responsibilities it does get more difficult and we can lose the ability to learn new things or undertake new challenges.

For me I'd like to learn more about how to do a movie and edit and post it on the Internet or even internally. Some people might want to learn about graphics. Like bird I believe that we have to learn things that are outside our own area makes us a more complete person and also gives them the confidence to move to learn in other areas.

He also challenges leaders to be subversives and occasionally to have a person who is not a yes man but challenges your way of thinking.

He also recognises that innovation can be undermined and it was nice to see my old friend the passive aggressive organisation getting a good run out again.

Bird doesn't like people who in public or in a management meeting are supportive but once they get back into the safety of their department peck away at the proposal. He soon gets rid of these people as soon as he spots them.

It is recognised that leaders can inhibit innovation and he goes back to his earlier point on complacency - he strongly believes that you should never be satisfied and that you should have the attitude of a student of your craft and keep working to improve.

The human condition I believe demands that we look to climb mountains instead of climbing into valleys. Only by climbing those mountains can we see new horizons, live on the edge and truly be human.

Occasionally we need to help pick our colleagues up if they have fallen over and coach them to climb this mountain but in time give them the confidence to climb their own mountains and to teach others the same knowledge.

The first owner at Coke once said that the world belongs to the discontented - Brad Bird seems to have picked up the same baton and is running with it.

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