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The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation
Measure Meetings with Action
Don’t meet just because it’s Monday.
Call out nonactionable meetings.
Conduct standing meetings.
Don’t call meetings out of your own insecurity.
Don’t stick to round numbers.
The Biology and Psychology of Completion
The Tao of the Follow-up
Kill Ideas Liberally
If you can learn to take action more quickly, you will reap the rewards of having more preliminary data about new possibilities. But the ability to act on fledgling ideas will help only if you also have the willpower to abandon them when necessary. When asked about their greatest failures, many of the teams I met shared instances in which a new idea came up and pushed a project offtrack—an idea that should have been killed once it was clear to everyone involved that it was a dead end.
The ability to expose an idea’s faults and doubts based on data from early actions is a critical skill for productive creative teams. Often this force of skepticism comes from a few members of the team who tend to see the downside of ideas rather than their potential. Some might refer to these skeptics as “Debbie Downers” or “killjoys” — drains on the excitement in the room — but their viewpoint is incredibly valuable. Those of us who work alone must find ways to cultivate this skepticism on our own. Whether it means playing the role of the skeptic for our own ideas or engaging others to play it, we must incorporate this proactive element of doubt.
Walt Disney is known for his boundless creativity, not his skepticism. But it turns out that Disney went to great lengths to ensure that his creative teams vetted ideas ruthlessly and killed them when necessary. An article by personal development specialist Keith Trickey describes how, when developing feature-length films, Disney implemented a staged process using three different rooms to foster ideas and then rigorously assess them:
Room One. In this room, rampant idea generation was allowed without any restraints.
The true essence of brainstorming— unrestrained thinking and throwing around ideas without limits—was supported without any doubts expressed.
Room Two. The crazy ideas from Room One were aggregated and organized in Room Two, ultimately resulting in a storyboard chronicling events and general sketches of characters.
^ Known as the “sweat box,” Room Three was where the entire creative team would critically review the project without restraint. Given the fact that the ideas from individuals had already been combined in Room Two, the criticism in Room Three was never directed at one person—just at elements of the project.
Every creative person and team needs a Room Three. As we build teams and develop a creative process, our tendency is to privilege the no-holds-barred creativity of Room One. But the idea bloodshed that occurs in Room Three is just as important as the wild ideation of Room One.
Through the use of physical space and clearly articulated objectives for the phases of idea generation, Disney created an extraordinarily productive creative enterprise that changed the world of entertainment. In their book ^ , Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of Walt Disney’s chief animators, wrote that “there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming into your meeting.” It seems that Disney not only pushed his team through all three rooms, he embodied the characteristics of the three rooms himself.
The best practice here is to value the skeptic’s role in idea generation. When you find yourself (or your team) rallying around a brand-new idea or applying creative touches to a project, you must summon a dose of skepticism to ground your judgment. You don’t need to set aside three actual rooms, but you do need a period of scrutiny in your creative process. You also don’t want to create too much structure around when you can and cannot generate new ideas. However, you must be willing to kill ideas liberally—for the sake of fully pursuing others.
In a rare interview in BusinessWeek on Apple’s system for innovation, CEO Steve Jobs explained that, in fact, there is no system at Apple—and that spontaneity is a crucial element for innovation, so long as it is paired with the ability to say no without hesitation:
Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.
But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.
And it comes from saying no to a thousand things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.
It is typical that in creative environments spontaneous idea generation gets in the way of following through on any particular idea. The wise creative leader understands that idea generation is a wild animal that requires a stolid trainer to tame excitement with a healthy dose of skepticism. You need to say “no” more than you say “yes,” and you need to build a team and culture that helps kill ideas when necessary.
Most meetings are fruitless. Amidst all the brainstorming, we must find ways to measure the outcome of meetings. While some of the greatest ideas and solutions come up in meetings, we often fail to connect these ideas to a tangible set of next steps.
Ideally, meetings should lead to ideas that are captured as Action Steps and then assigned to individuals together with deadlines.
Meetings are extremely expensive in terms of our time and energy. When a meeting begins, the work flow of every team member stops. All progress comes to a grinding halt — and every person’s effort to execute is put on pause as the team comes together. At the very least there is an agenda for the meeting, but all too often there isn’t. And if there is an agenda, it is likely that attendees were polled for agenda topics and encouraged to add something—a practice that only makes meetings longer. The worst part is that most teams plan meetings as liberally as they drink coffee.
After years of observing teams struggle to balance productivity with the desire to meet, I can report that the most productive teams plan meetings sparingly. Using the Action Method lens on life, we can argue that meetings have little value without any actionable outcome. In most cases, leaving a meeting without anything actionable signifies that the meeting was just an information exchange and should have taken place over e-mail.
Here are a few practices worth considering when it comes to meetings:
^ Abolish automatic meetings without an actionable agenda. Gathering people for no other reason than “because it’s Monday” (or any other day) makes little sense. Lacking an agenda, these automatic meetings have the tendency to become “posting meetings,” when everyone just shares updates to no particular end. If you can’t entirely eliminate regularly scheduled meetings, at least allow yourself (or encourage your leaders) to cancel them liberally. In busy times when there is nothing actionable to meet about, fruitless meetings become even more costly.
End with a review of Actions captured. At the end of a meeting, take a few moments to go around and review the Action Steps each person has captured. This exercise takes less than thirty seconds per person and will often reveal either a few Action Steps that were missed or a few that were double captured (leading to duplicated work). It also breeds a sense of accountability. If you state your Action Steps in front of your colleagues, you are more likely to follow through with them.
^ When meetings end without any Action Steps, it is your responsibility to speak up and question the value of the meeting. Ultimately, doing so will earn you respect, boost productivity, and preserve your team’s energy. Just don’t plan a meeting to discuss worthless meetings (yes, this has happened before).
^ Courtney Holt, the former head of digital music and media at MTV and now head of MySpace Music, conducts what he calls “standing meetings.” Lengthy, pointless meetings are less likely to happen when everyone is standing—and gradually getting weak in the knees.
^ For team leaders, the true purpose of a meeting is sometimes just to get reassurance. In some cases, leaders who are unable to keep track of what their people are doing will call a meeting to figure out what is going on. Or, in other cases, leaders are uncertain about their success or decisions and crave a little positive reinforcement from the head-nodding yes-men for pure self-gratification. Having our team members in the room to report what they are working on is soothing. But addressing our own insecurities as leaders should not be so costly. As leaders, we should recognize the cost of calling meetings and identify other ways to build trust and accountability in our teams. Great leaders candidly ask themselves why they are calling a meeting, and they are fiercely protective of their team’s time.
^ Most impromptu meetings that are called to quickly catch up on a project or discuss a problem can take place in ten minutes or less.
However, when they are scheduled in calendar programs, they tend to be set in thirty- or sixty-minute increments. Why? Just because it’s the default setting! Ideally, meetings should have a start time and then end as quickly as possible. Some teams have experimented with calling meetings for ten or fifteen minutes and were surprised to see them end on time, even if they used to take thirty minutes or an hour.
Always measure with Action Steps . . . or something else. Sometimes, we must meet for a concrete but nonactionable objective. Whether it is to align goals, to sell everyone on a new change, or to address a cultural concern, meetings with a nonactionable objective can be valuable. However, meetings that lack both an objective and an actionable outcome should never happen. If you’re not measuring the outcome of a meeting with Action Steps, then you need to measure it with something else. For project management meetings, value should be measured with Action Steps. For cultural change meetings, value should be measured with a shared understanding. And for alignment and buy-in, value should be measured with a new level of understanding and consensus after the meeting that will help improve the team’s chemistry.
In April 2008, the Behance team held its first “99% Conference,” inspired by the Thomas Edison quote mentioned earlier. In a world full of conferences dedicated to inspiring ideas, we created one focusing solely on their execution. As such, speakers were requested to refrain from talking about the source of their ideas, revealing instead their process and struggle in implementing them. It was a grand experiment: would people want to spend two days talking about the laborious and despised process of turning ideas into action?
The 99% Conference sold out, and a truly diverse audience from multiple industries attended. One of our featured speakers was the exceptionally productive author and marketing guru Seth Godin, known for his prolific blogging and numerous books on marketing and leadership.
Godin consistently executes. Aside from his best-selling books, he has created products, started companies, and founded a rather unorthodox six-month MBA training course.3 Godin’s abundant success has garnered a significant fan base that considers him a genius. However, Godin has a different take on his success. He agreed to speak at the 99% Conference to shed some light on his real track record and how, as a creative professional, he became regarded as successful.
His presentation had one slide—a collage of images representing all of the products, books, and other things he had created over the course of his life. He motioned to the slide and explained to the audience that the vast majority of the products or organizations he had built failed. “But,” he explained, “the reason that I’ve managed a modicum of success is because I just keep shipping.”
“Shipping” is when you release something—when you put a new product on sale, when you debut your latest piece of artwork in a gallery, or when you send your manuscript to the publisher. Shipping is the final act of execution that so rarely happens.
Godin made the case that shipping is an active mind-set rather than a passive circumstance. “When you run out of money or you run out of time, you ship. . . . If your mind-set is ‘I ship,’ that’s not just a convenient shortcut, it’s in fact an obligation. And you build your work around that obligation. Instead of becoming someone who’s a wandering generality—and someone who has lots of great ideas and ‘if only, if only, if only,’ you are someone who always ends up shipping.”
The reason Godin has failed so many times is because he has shipped so many times. At the same time, due to this mind-set, Godin has also shipped some marvelous work—trendsetting books and new businesses that have captured the imagination of the masses. But to ship with such frequency, Godin has had to overcome some of the major psychological barriers of the creative mind.
Godin believes that the source of obstacles to shipping is the “lizard brain.” Anatomically, the lizard brain exists in all of us—it is known as the amygdala, a small nugget of our larger brain that sits at the top of our brainstem. “All chickens and lizards have is a lizard brain,” Godin explained. “It is hungry, it is scared, it is selfish, and it is horny. That’s its job, and that’s all it does. . . . It turns out that we have one too.” Of course, through evolution, the human brain has evolved into a complex system capable of thinking much more expansively—and creatively. But the primal tendencies of the lizard brain to keep us safe by avoiding danger and risk are still potent.
After the biology lesson, Godin explained that “every single time we get close to shipping, every single time the manuscript is ready to send to the publisher, the lizard brain speaks up. . . . The lizard brain says, ‘They’re gonna laugh at me,’ ‘I’m gonna get in trouble . . .’ The lizard brain [screams] at the top of its lungs. And so, what happens is we don’t do it. We sabotage it. We hold back. We have another meeting.”
The lizard brain interferes with execution by amplifying our fears and conjuring up excuses to play it safe. Suddenly the responsibilities of our full-time jobs or our personal lives will support our lizard brain’s call for retreat. While the lizard brain stays quiet when we have monotonous jobs with a paycheck for doing what we’re told, it becomes riled when we start to challenge the status quo.
What creative people need, Godin believes, “is a quieter lizard brain.”
Of course, it is extremely difficult to override our biological and psychological tendencies. To confidently quell the resistance triggered by our lizard brains, we must choose our projects wisely and then execute without remorse. By committing to always shipping regardless of success or failure, Godin is able to battle the barrage of excuses thrown at him by his primal self. He is comfortable with the risk of failure because he knows that such comfort is, in fact, the key to being able to execute. As a result, Godin has made ideas happen again and again. The price he happily pays for his successes is having a lot of failures along the way.
A big part of execution is persistence. When we rely on others to drive momentum, our projects are at their mercy. Sometimes, to keep moving our ideas forward, we need to relentlessly follow up with others.
Jesse Rothstein, an energetic and charismatic sales representative at Procter & Gamble, radiated the enthusiasm and collegial spirit bred during his days as a star athlete playing a starting position on Cornell University’s lacrosse team. Working for Procter & Gamble, Rothstein spent much of his time on the road, traveling from store to store along the East Coast, meeting with the corporate buyers of Procter & Gamble’s products.
Many of the managers and buyers at Wal-Mart, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale Club knew Rothstein—and they all loved him. But, while he knew everything about the trends and margins on toothpaste, mouthwash, and laundry detergent, Rothstein was best known for what he did when he didn’t know something. He would seek the answer and ruthlessly follow up until he got it. Simple, right?
Following up is easy when the answer is a phone call away. But what about finding information that requires responses from multiple people? What about pursuing an answer that lies only at the very end of a long chain of frustrating and tiresome actions?
Rothstein’s gift is his ability to navigate corporate bureaucracies, multiple time zones, and various rungs of the corporate ladder to find information and serve his clients. He has no MBA, no souped-up technological solutions, and no magical powers. What Rothstein has is perseverance and a simple conviction that he adheres to with an almost religious fervor: he follows up like crazy.
“I’m starting to believe that life is just about following up,” Rothstein confided to me on a hot August evening at a Thai restaurant in New York City. “There’s this one guy that I was paired up with to lead a recruiting project. It wasn’t his real job, and it isn’t mine, but it’s something you do in a company to help out. It’s corporate citizenship. The problem was that this guy didn’t really care. I would send e-mails and a week would pass before a response. I would send drafts of a calendar for him to review and get no response. He obviously didn’t care much, but the project had to get done. At one point, more than a week passed without any feedback or collaboration. So, I forwarded the original e-mail again. Then, two days later, I reforwarded the forwarded e-mail. Then three days later I printed the e-mail out and I sent it FedEx overnight, with my quick notation at the top:
‘Just wanted to follow up.—Jesse.’ He finally got back to me, and he did quite a bit of the work himself.”
Rothstein’s relentless commitment to following up distinguished him in the eyes of his clients and his employers. This simple conviction, he claimed, is at the core of his ability to pursue sales leads, relationships, and other ideas. Even outside of his work at Procter & Gamble, Rothstein put his follow-up principle to work. He started a nonprofit organization that runs an annual dinner fund-raiser called the 21 Dinner, in honor of a former lacrosse teammate who tragically died on the field. He was able to secure sponsors and well-known speakers from the world of sports, ultimately raising $50,000 in his first year running. It is no surprise that this dinner is now in its fourth year.
Rothstein later left a very successful career at Procter & Gamble to found a nonprofit organization called “Coach for America.” His impressive ability to make bold ideas happen through great determination has enabled him to found such an organization despite a troubled economy.
To push multiple projects forward simultaneously—and succeed—you’ve got to have something special. People like Rothstein make you wonder if almost impossible feats become more possible through the application of simple convictions and practical methods like following up—rather than, say, genius.
After all, none of Rothstein’s actions selling product at Procter & Gamble, securing venues for the 21 Dinner, or printing apparel were brilliant on their own. Rothstein’s brilliance lies with the fact that he always identifies the necessary actions for each project and then takes them (and enforces them) relentlessly. He always follows up until every action is done.
Further investigation of Rothstein’s system for organizing projects and ideas—and Action Steps—revealed a concrete method to his madness. Rothstein’s approach, though highly personalized for his own work flow and on-the-road lifestyle, incorporated many of the key elements of the Action Method. From the way he captured ideas and subsequent actions in every meeting to the way he processed them, Rothstein rarely missed a beat.
There are many stories like Rothstein’s among idea generators who follow through and are successful. At the core of each story, we find the same set of methods and convictions again and again. While each person’s system is personalized, the mechanics of how productively creative people work are fairly consistent.
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