McKinsey Quarterly interview with Pixar award-winning Director, Brad Bird

In the McKinsey Quarterly interview of Brad Bird, the award-winning Pixar film Director shared very interesting insights relevant to anyone leading highly-creative innovation work.   Below are some quotes from the interview and takeaways that are worth sharing.

Before I got the chance to make films myself, I worked on a number of badly run productions and learned how not to make a film. I saw directors systematically restricting people’s input and ignoring any effort to bring up problems. As a result, people didn’t feel invested in their work, and their productivity went down. As their productivity fell, the number of hours of overtime would increase, and the film became a money pit.

In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

Takeaway:  It is how people feel that determines their productivity!

Our goal is different because if you say you’re making a movie for “them,” that automatically puts you on an unsteady footing. The implication is, you’re making it for a group that you are not a member of—and there is something very insincere in that.  If you’re dealing with a storytelling medium, which is a mechanized means of producing and presenting a dream that you’re inviting people to share, you’d better believe your dream or else it’s going to come off as patronizing.

So my goal is to make a movie I want to see. If I do it sincerely enough and well enough—if I’m hard on myself and not completely off base, not completely different from the rest of humanity—other people will also get engaged and find the film entertaining.

Takeaway:  It is critical to believe in what you are trying to create.  It therefore makes a lot of sense to make something that you yourself find valuable, and then trust your own judgment to represent preferences of a larger group.

[At Pixar] Steve [Jobs] put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.  So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.

Takeaway:  In this information age, with more sophisticated new ideas and technologies swarming around us than ever before, small simple things are still elemental to success.  People making eye contact for example is necessary above and beyond simply being physically near one another.  Communication, engagement, sharing of information, and connecting with colleagues are fundamental elements that lead to effective collaboration and timely execution.

I don’t want him to tell me, “Whatever you want, Brad,” and then we run out of resources. I want him to tell me, “If you do X, we’re not going to be able to do Y.” I’ll fight, but I’ll have to make the choice. I love working with John because he’ll give me the bad news straight to my face. Ultimately, we both win. If you ask within Pixar, we are known as being efficient. Our movies aren’t cheap, but the money gets on the screen because we’re open in our conflict.  Nothing is hidden.

Takeaway:  Don’t waste time with interpersonal conflict.  Seek to identify points of conflict within the team and discuss it right away.   It sounds like, at Pixar, they don’t waste a lot of time and resources building movie parts that don’t ever make it onscreen; rather a large proportion of the work produced ends up in the final product; and this is because the team addresses conflict immediately, without letting it live subsurface, which is distracting and energy-consuming.

What are insights and what role do they play in leading innovative changes in business?

I just finished reading a well-written and insightful paper about insights and the role they play in innovation consulting.  The author, Mark Payne, Fahrenheit 212 co-founder and President, seems to practice what he preaches.  The fundamental role of “commercial insights” he explains to be necessary for successful innovation consulting, for example, seem to have greatly influenced the design of his firm, the kinds of people they employ, and how they solve problems for clients.

Below are some of my favorite quotes and takeaways from this paper.

Quote:
“To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value.  Throw weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions.”

Quote:
“…an energizing truth because yes, our reaction does matter.  Insight needs to inspire and ignite ideas and action among the people it touches.  Forget the lonely inventor in the garage.  Innovation is a team sport and great insights will electrify and galvanize teams around a sense of new possibility.”

Quote:
“Consume insight is absolutely critical and instrumental, but it isn’t enough to ensure an idea represents as big a step forward for the business as it does for the consumer.”

Takeaway:
I am an Introspector type of insight generator.
It was a tough call, because I think I generate insights in all three ways (Detective, Empathizer, Introspector), but if I had to pick just one, I think most of my insights come from personal experiences that I then seek to understand and validate with other people.

Quote:
“Outside-In means looking inward at company assets from the standpoint of the consumer’s tensions and emerging needs.  Inside-Out means looking out at the consumer from the perspective of the under leveraged assets and tensions embedded in the company.”

Quote:
“…it’s far easier to excite a consumer with creative, new transformational possibility than it is to get a company to embrace something it’s never done before.  Commercial insights hold the keys to winning over the company.”

Takeaway:
I would partially define insight to be about seeing what is already there, but that others have not seen.  Nature already is already providing all the information we need, but we have to connect the dots, analyze the information, look for patterns, and look for the explanatory variables.

Do people have children as means for dealing with our own mortality?

Do people have children as means for dealing with our own mortality?  Not that this would be a bad thing at all, but does it possibly explain our decision to have children and other deep motivations behind human behavior.

For a while now, I have been curious to understand why some people want to have children and raise a family, and why others do not.   We don’t really live in an age where we need children to do manual labor on the farm anymore so why do some people want something even when it–in many ways–it makes no rational sense.   For parents, children, after all, mean: more responsibility, less  freedom, emotional vulnerability and suffering caused by the relationship with them and their eventual extended family members, etc.

So why, amidst all these reasons to not have children, do people want them?  Since I believe we are rational creatures, we must be having childrent because we essentially feel that doing so will bring us more pleasure than pain.

Then I watched an interview with futurist Jason Silva, and he said some things about human behavior and psychology that I think make a lot of sense and that I had been wondering about for some time.

I think one of the ways children generate pleasure for parents is by helping parents deal with something every human undeniably struggles with: our own mortality.  We know we will die some day, but we do not like this; and so we do things to try and deal with this uncomfortable truth.   One way to deal with it is to rebel, and to try controlling it.    We can try to freeze ourselves in sub-zero ice chambers (Walt Disney) or we can get lost in an experiences that provides an escape or distraction from thinking about the fact that we only have so much time (movies and stories), or we can try and do things that make us feel like we can escape death (daredevils), or, I argue, we can try and create things that will live on after we die.   And I think having children–at some level–serves this selfish need inside us.   In addition, I think this need to create something that will live on beyond us, partially explains the attraction people have to:

  • writing books or blogs (putting their thoughts/voice into a medium that will live forever on Google’s servers somewhere)
  • create organizations or trusts that, legally, can have an infinite life
  • volunteer as mentors to younger people or children
  • join political movements that leave lasting change on something that will exist after we die (environmental movements)

Ultimately, I agree with Jason Silva.  I think all humans want to leave our mark in this world.  We want to feel like we matter; that we have a purpose.  I also  think our struggle of dealing with our humanity and mortality is so core and fundamental to who we all are that it is worth exploring and understanding further no matter who we are; and then make the world a more enjoyable place for us all.   As business person, for example, I wonder how I can create and manage a business in a way that makes people feel like they matter?   Can I listen to employees and customers better?  Can I involve them in the decision making processes such as product development, which results in tangible market offerings that people can point to and know they were a part of?   Indeed, I think we are now seeing modern management practices doing just this, and as a result, seeing improved productivity with employees and greater satisfaction and brand equity with customers; all because they are serving our fundamental human need to feel like we made a lasting difference on our world, and that we are not just some kind of puppet being controlled by some mystical god.

How do you deal with your own mortality?  Do you embrace it?  Do you ever think about it?  I realize it’s probably not healthy to be thinking constantly about our eventual death, but we should probably not pretend like it is not going to happen.  What do you think?   Leave a comment on this post.

Will this technology replace 3D printing for design prototyping?

Maybe this technology could take a CADD file and quickly generate an interactive 3D model, which could be sent to colleagues over the internet!   …I think it offers a compelling sense for spatial aesthetics of a 3D product design, and then we wouldn’t have to wait for the 3D printer anymore.

the pivot: another entreprenuership lesson that’s relevant for business strategists and managers

The articulate and insightful Eric Ries, coined the term “pivot”.   In the entreprenuership community, we hear this term a lot.  The definition and examples he provides in a SXSW interview  are just very well explained and insightful.    He says “A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision.”

I highly recommend the other videos in the PIVOT Series as well.

A most inspiring story and definition of “design”

In his TedTalk, John Hockenberry, helps me understand why I so love design, feel passionately about it’s importance, and why I am so attracted to people–especially women–who have style…it is all about our intent.

Quotes from John’s Ted Talk:

“You’re right between horse and squirrel, John.”

“Design is, supplying intent.”

“Reality itself needed a designer.”

 

 

Paradoux of Choice

In our quest to maximize freedom, we maximize choice, but is this maximization of choice leading to maximization of happiness?

In his TedTalk, Psychologist Barry Swartz helps me understand why I hate large restaurant menus.  He articulates nicely, ideas that strongly suggest maximizing choice does not maximize our happiness; rather it is in fact reducing our happiness!   I don’t think there is anything more important to ponder than things that directly affect our collective (he mentions the possibility of Pareto Inefficient economies) and individual  happiness, and I highly recommend watching the entire 19 minute TedTalk (below); but some of the major takeaways are below.

The cost of choices includes:

  • paralysis, the resulting procrastination, and the resulting consequences of not taking action create huge costs for individuals
  • the opportunity costs of not choosing another available choice, subtracts from the satisfaction of making the choice that I made
  • with so many choices, we expect one of those choices to be a perfect fit; and high expectations that prevent us from being presently surprised and “The key to happiness is low expectations!”

Some takeaways:

  • “Everything was better back when things were worse”
  • “…pretty confident we have long since passed the point [number of choices] where choices are adding to our welfare”

What can us business strategists learn from the recent implementation of radical data-driven defense strategies used by some very successful baseball managers.

As baseball teams look for competitive advantage, they have come back to playing unconventional defenses as a means for attacking some players tendencies to hit the ball consistently to certain parts of the field.   Take for example, moving your 3rd baseman to shallow right field to take away line drives from a left-handed pull hitter (Devil Rays did this to NY Yankees hitter Mark Teshara).  This shift essentially created an extra outfielder and one less infielders.   The Toronto Blue Jays have started doing similar defensive maneuvers, but only after they saw Devil Rays manager, Joe Maddon, do it with such success.   As I think this MLB.com video correctly pointed out, a substantial amount of thought has to be invested in the design and implementation of this type of strategy, because the hitter’s tendency to hit balls to certain spots on the field is a function of where the pitcher locates his pitches.

Applications to the world of business strategy

But what has me thinking about all this is the possibility of parallels being from this story of baseball strategy to the world of business strategy.   How are businesses using data to exploit their customer preferences, or to better understand their competitor’s strategy; and ultimately creating competitive advantage through defensive strategy?

Then, my further question, is what is the answer to this data-driven and defensive approach to strategy design; and is the answer for business strategists similar to the answer for baseball strategists (i.e. baseball team managers and batters)?   That is, in baseball, the answer for the batter seems to be simply to focus only on what you can control and therefor focus on “going with” the pitch and hitting strikes as hard and as accurately as you can.   For the most part, a batter can’t directly control where the defense positions its defenders or where the pitcher will throw the ball, but he can control what pitches he swings at and how well he hits those pitches.   Does this idea extend to business?

In business, we generally think that good strategy takes into consideration what our competition can do, and if we tap into game theory, this expectation of what our competition will then do feeds the competition’s decision making process, and then this loops back to our decision, and the loop continues ad nauseam.    So here is my thought for us business strategists, should we–like the good  baseball batter–start thinking a little less about what our competition will do and instead focus more on what we can control?   For example, should we simply focus on: a) what are our visions for the future of our customer and distributor markets, and b) the unique capabilities we possess or will develop for executing on that vision.

This data-driven approach to managing a baseball team is an evolutionary change in baseball, perhaps due to the great accuracy and volume of data being collected today, as compared to earlier decades of the game.   Maddon and the Devil Ray’s are the vanguard of this data analysis movement in baseball, and I think it is worth studying him for how he crafts and implements his strategies, and also for the courage it takes to do something so radical.

Takeaways in business and innovation from an internet icon

Marc Andreessen was recently recognized as a Wired Icon and pioneer of the internet.   Given his 20+ year history within the industry as an entrepreneur and now venture capitalist, his perspective has proven to be an insightful one; and so I read the transcript from his interview Chris Anderson.

At one point, Andreessen said something that I think is pretty powerful for innovators and business:

But making it [the internet] easier to use also made it more apparent how to use it, all the different things that people could do with it—which then made people want it more. And it’s also clear that we helped drive faster bandwidth: By creating the demand, we helped increase the supply.

This quote is dense.   It is a comment on multi-sided business models.   It is also a comment on the power of user-centered and service (since we cannot design experiences) design.

Another interesting strategic business lesson to learn came is Andreessen’s comment on why the LoudCloud business didn’t work:

Well, it worked beautifully right up to the point when all the startups went bankrupt, and then all our big clients decided they didn’t have to worry about competing with the startups anymore. After that, it went completely sideways.   ….

and the pivot:

So we just went back to basics and we said, OK, we couldn’t make it work as a service provider, but we think we can make it work as a software company, selling the back-end software to manage big networks of servers. We changed our name to Opsware. That ultimately worked, as a business.

On the importance of timing to market adoption and overall success of an innovative product/business:

Andreessen:  We see [social] playing out in retail, where ecommerce is becoming a group activity. Long before Ning, actually, in 1999, I invested in a company called Mobshop, which was Reed’s law applied to commerce, through group sales. It didn’t work back then. But 10 years later, I invested in Groupon, because I could see it was the same idea—finding, on the fly, a group of people who want the same product and using their massive numbers to command steep discounts. …

Anderson: What changed between 1999 and 2009 that made Groupon—and Facebook, and all these other profitable consumer Internet companies—possible?

Andreessen:A big part of it was broadband. Ironically, it was during the nuclear winter, from 2000 to 2005, that broadband happened. DSL got built out, cable modems got built out. So then you started to have 100, 200, 300 million people worldwide on broadband.

How society and culture changes influence success of innovations:

Andreessen: I often wonder if we should have built social into the browser from the start. The idea that you want to be connected with your friends, your social circle, the people you work with—we could have built that into Mosaic. But at the time, the culture on the Internet revolved around anonymity and pseudonyms.

On the power of optimism or the lack of cynicism, Andreessen comments that this is one of the reasons Zuckerberg and Andrew Mason were able to pursue their ideas (i.e. they weren’t burned by the previous dotcom bust).

On which industries are closest on the horizon to being improved by internet technologies:

Andreessen:  The next stops, I believe, are education, financial services, health care, and then ultimately government—the huge swaths of the economy that historically have not been addressable by technology, that haven’t been amenable to the entrance of Silicon Valley-style software companies. But increasingly I think they’re going to be.

On “software expressed as hardware”:

Andreessen:  … There’s a lot of hardware engineering that goes into it, but 90 percent of the intellectual property is software.  So we look at Lytro and we look at Jawbone and we see software expressed as hardware—highly specialized hardware that will be hard to clone.

Its not one big thing, but rather a lot of little things

Today, early Facebook employee and now Quora founder, Charlie Cheer, came to Tepper to talk to us about his entrepreneurial experiences in the web 2.0 space.  He said a lot of interesting things, but one thing in particular I thought was quite smart and different.   When asked how Quora competes with other question-and-answer websites, especially as a late entrant, he said that Quora’s competitive advantage–and I am paraphrasing–

It’s not one big thing, but rather a bunch of little things.

He then went on to give an example of one of these little things that Quora has done with the design of its product; and that’s when I started to believe in my theory that a web-based platform business can not only compete with but beet incumbents with better user-centered design.   This made me then wonder why might this be true?  Are these web-based platform businesses unique from other businesses in this way?  Could any other business enter a market and create better user experiences by simply out-designing the competition?

Fortunately, I had the chance to ask Charlie what his biggest challenge(s) was in running such a web-based platform as opposed to say, a web app that taps into a platform, and he said it was growing the number of users that use the platform.  This of course made sense, and so I wondered, if users are the lifeblood of the platform, and the entire user experience dictates whether users continue using, join, or stop using the platform, shouldn’t we expect these platform businesses, which sometimes depend on network effects, to consistently announce that their competitive advantage will be user experience and product/service design?

All businesses need to care about the experiences of their users/customers, but I think network effect-dependent businesses/products may be uniquely positioned to make a focus on user experience design a market entry strategy against a sea of incumbent players.    This may be especially true given customers/users have such low costs of switching to competing products.