Creativity, Inc. and #1 reason why projects struggle

I just recently finished reading Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull. It is undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read. The book provides a history of how Pixar came about and how Pixar has managed to maintain their culture of creativity and innovation. There are many poignant lessons that I took away from the book, but perhaps the one that resounded the most was the use of what they termed the ‘braintrust’ team.

BTW, I hate the term Braintrust – I would rather just use a term without any implied hierarchy.

Braintrust

The concept behind the Braintrust team is that it is a team made up of their most senior writers and creative minds that can help to review the status of the movies on a regular basis. The objective behind these meetings are that these senior team members have a wealth of experience they can pass on to the team currently working on the movie on how the movie might be missing the mark.

There are a couple of simple rules:

  1. The feedback is not personal and it given in the spirit of making the movie the best in can possibly be.
  2. The feedback does not include the solution to the perceived issues and the Braintrust team has no authority to get the team to implement a certain solution.

The goal of the Braintrust is to highlight opportunities and then let the movie team determine the best solution. Questions may be raised in the next Braintrust review if nothing has been done since the last meeting, but there is no direction that they give the team on how problems should be solved.

Why?

Why do I like this model? On many projects I have been on we have tried to have some level of review and governance to help the project teams. But like many other people I know we have always struggled to get to the real issues that the project is encountering. Our checkpoints just didn’t highlight the areas of concern. So what was Pixar doing that we weren’t?

One thing I thought initially was that Pixar had their Braintrust be a team of 4-5 people. This is ideal as it brings a wealth of experience and also balances the project team and Braintrust out in terms of numbers. I think when an entire project team reviews their project with one person, the difference in numbers could allow for a pro-project point of view. This is not done intentionally, but could lead to the dismissal of ideas just due to the difference in numbers.

Culture

The project culture at Pixar is profoundly grounded in their culture. It can be summed up simply as:

“Projects are expected to struggle, a project running smoothly is not a goal”

Let’s think about that for a second.¬†Management’s job is not to limit risk but to build the ability to recover.¬†Management is doing their job when their teams are able to solve problems. I haven’t found this perspective in many software shops. In Software Development companies the goal is to have a smoothly running project.

This is quite different that the traditional approach where we have project checkpoints and see our role as management to try to solve the problems the team have and get the project to run smoothly again.

This approach frees the team up to be creative and try new approaches knowing management doesn’t view problems as some fault of the team. Pixar¬†understands that the project team must become the ‘project’ they are working on to be able to achieve the objectives of the project. The downside of this is that the project team then loses some of their objectivity to be able to achieve the objectives of the project. The Braintrust can then assist in that regard to provide an unbiased view to help the project achieve all of the project’s objectives.

Summary

I think the Braintrust model has a lot of promise. I hope to try something similar in the future. If you haven’t yet read Creativity, Inc, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Oh yeah and what is the #1 reason project struggle? They struggle because they are supposed to. Having a project without struggles means the project probably didn’t do much that was new or different or complex. Have a lot of those projects and your company isn’t moving forward any more.