Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It's the talent, stupid

Since we seem to have a handle on something, let's introduce a new reading, which will be shared at tonight's Smarter, Better Workplaces information session at the Gleacher Center. Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar Studios and serves as the studio's President. His recent article in The Harvard Business Review, "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity", provides superb illustrations (pun intended) of how some of the things we have been talking about can be implemented. It weaves together our concerns about talent and the value of trust, respect, and reciprocity as social goods crucial to workplace success, while introducing something new to our conversation: the idea that creativity is the product of successful collaboration, not individual sweat and genius. Smart, talented people produce original, breakthrough ideas, but those ideas need to be refined and realized through collective effort. This is a fact too often ignored as we celebrate "great leaders" and "innovators." Consumers don't buy ideas, they buy products, or tickets to films, or sign up for new services, and the effort required to transform an idea into any of these marketplace-ready offerings requires the contribution of many, many people.

The trick, Catmull argues, is finding ways for talented people to work together, confident that they won't be pushed aside, or denied acknowledgement, or blamed if their contribution fails to solve a crucial problem, or produces unanticipated difficulties. This requires, as we have been proclaiming over the last several weeks, the engineering of a particular type of workplace, one where frequent interaction, across extended networks, produces social capital, that is, trust and respect and familiarity and expectations of reciprocity.

In too many workplaces, getting on the agenda - having an opportunity to have one's ideas reviewed by senior management - is a full-contact, competitive sport. In Pixar, the entire organization works to generate and incubate and improve ideas. Instead of elbowing past others, Pixar employees are encouraged to build on ideas offered by colleagues, not tear them apart. When bad ideas are offered up, the creative group sifts through other contributions looking for good ones. They don't waste time castigating the contributor who stumbled, because that weakens his confidence and his trust in the creative process, undermining his ability to collaborate further.

This belief - that creativity is a product of collaboration, not individual genius - doesn't suggest that employers shouldn't look for talent. Talented people generate good ideas. But an employer who recruits talented people, but inserts them into a workplace where competition encourages workers to keep promising but imperfectly fleshed-out ideas a secret for fear they will be stolen or ridiculed, won't succeed in producing many blockbusters.

No comments: