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.

“Computers are already better than us at playing chess, but we are still better at recognizing a photo of our parents or children”

As I was leaving Tom Mitchell’s office, he says to me in the kind of hurried speech of a brilliant individual who has perhaps made the statement before:

“Computers are already better than us at playing chess, but we are still better at recognizing a photo of our parents or children.”

Many consider Tom Mitchell, chair of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, to be a leading pioneer and expert in the field; and I just met with him to get a better understanding of machine learning, its limits, and its future.

Some major takeaways include:

  • We should not be afraid of machine learning replacing humans, at least in the near term
  • Even the area of “unsupervised learning” still requires humans to tell the computer what relationships to tease out of data
  • The lack of understanding possessed by businesses and marketers about machine learning consistently causes them to come to machine learning experts, such as Dr. Mitchell, asking these computer scientists to make sense of these large datasets.  These are under specified and arguably therefore useless questions for which machine learning is of little use.  What is always needed is context, a hypothesis you wish to test, and an ability to gather/capture useful datapoints.

At the end of the day, humans are still needed to perform one very critical function: defining the dependent variable and the range of possible independent variables that explain/affect that dependent variable.

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.

Keepon dance robot video

When I watch the Keepon robot respond to the music, I feel like I could learn new dance moves from it; and I am really curious to learn what the design of the controlling software algorithms look like.  My Carnegie Mellon University robotics friends and classmates of the inventor tell me the algorithms are not terribly innovative, however, but I digress.  The technology is not why I am writing this post.

I am writing this post to share an exquisite piece of storytelling.  Not one word is ever spoken in the video, and yet the value proposition and technology’s capabilities, such as the little bit of artificial intelligence built into it to generate human like responses to some situations it encounters, are clearly and amuzingly communicated.

[youtube_video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWcNYFQ5TLE&w=560&h=315]

 

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.