Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On being a black sheep

My Twitter stream this morning included a link to a blog post by Abhijit Kadle of Upside Learning. That, in turn took me to this article in the McKinsey Quarterly (registration required) covering an interview with Brad Bird, talking about the importance of innovation.

The stand out thing that served to hook me in was Brad Bird's name (non sequitur: Brad Bird is listed on IMDB as 'aka Bradley Bloody Bird'. I love that. It makes me feel better about my own sometime nickname, to wit: 'that emasculating bitch').

May I just confess that I love animated movies? Not all of them, of course. But so many of them are cleverly wrought. And Brad Bird's work is right up there, in my opinion.

When my children were little, I used them as an excuse to see all the animated movies, and to buy them on video (yup, it was a while ago). When they reached a certain age, I had a decision to make: I either owned up to the fact that I was going to the movies because I wanted to see the films, or I gave up on the big screen experience of animated feature films.

I took a big girl pill and opted for the former.

Fortunately, I was not alone. There are many of us out there, happily consuming animated movies.

And my kids have never outgrown their love of animated movies, either. They are completely unfazed at the idea of going to a cinema to see Up (highly recommended - take tissues), or The Incredibles, or whatever. I suspect that this is partly to do with the fact that games console games are animated and decidedly un-childish; and partly due to the influence of The Simpsons (which is also a Brad Bird thing, by the way), followed by all manner of animated definitely-not-for-children TV shows, such as South Park, American Dad et al.

But I digress.

Brad Bird's work pushes boundaries. And I love that. Producers of animated series often confess that they experience frustration during brainstorming sessions, as every 'new idea' they come up with has already been done in The Simpsons. Bird went there first.

In the McKinsey article, one section jumped out at me:

Bird discussed the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”—restless contributors with unconventional ideas. Although stimulating the creativity of animators might seem very different from developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs, Bird’s anecdotes should stir the imagination of innovation-minded executives in any industry.
Yes. Yes. And yes.

It isn't easy to be the designated sandpaper in any equation. To be the person who challenges the status quo. Who pushes back on the preconceptions and assumptions. Those of us who find ourselves in this position (and I am relatively fine-grained sandpaper, compared to some of you brave souls), are often told that we should stop being so difficult. The assumption is made that we do so just for the sake of it.

But we cannot just lower our heads and traipse along the well-worn paths, and still look ourselves in the mirror. We're just not made that way.

And occasionally, just occasionally, we stumble across evidence that there is a good reason to be the way we are. That we serve some purpose, other than driving people nuts. This interview with Bird is one such.

But let's look for a moment at the role of the executive (Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter), here. They were the ones who were brave enough to unleash Bird on their empire. Off the back of huge blockbusters that we animated movie fans have all watched countless times, they took a chance on Bird whose latest project (The Iron Giant) had been less than stellar (although I, of course, loved it):
“The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.” For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, “Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up”—when do you run into that?
Don't you wish you'd get a mandate like that? And don't you wish you'd get more of that 'good argument'? When you're thinking out loud and making suggestions and exploring possibilities, don't you wish that people would argue with you if they disagree, instead of sitting there looking mutinous?

Argh! Engage, people. Engage! Disagree. Make your case. Fight your corner.

If I'm wrong, talk me out of it. But don't just cling to the wreckage of the default position because 'that's how we do things around here'. Why do you do things that way? If you have a reason, tell me. If it turns out that your reason has passed its sell-by date, perhaps we can find a more effective way of doing things. Together. But we can't do that if you don't add your ideas to the mix, now can we?

And, just to finish off with - does the man's talent know no bounds? Having failed to find anyone to voice the delightful Edna in The Incredibles to his satisfaction, Bird was talked into doing it himself. I had assumed, when I saw the movie, that they had somehow talked Yoko Ono into doing the voice, and was somewhat incredulous when the credits rolled.

I later saw an interview with one of the team members, who shared how it had come about that Bird voiced this character himself. Apparently, he was advising Lily Tomlin on how to voice the character, and she suggested that he had nailed it so perfectly that he should do it himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Edna Mode:


Views from Malmesbury said...

Remember Bambi? His mother?...sob! Those were the days. I heartily agree about making ourselves heard, my very first post when I started blogging was about risking ridicule and getting ideas out there. However, unless the boss is the right sort or you don't need to worry about losing your job, you need to be careful in the workplace. I've seen at least three people lose their jobs as a result of airing their ideas over the years. One was single and independently wealthy so didn't care, one was married with grown-up children and was black-balled in the industry, the other was married with younger children and could only get low-paid jobs thereafter, both from lack of qualifications and the word spread around that he was 'trouble'. No doubt there are employees out there who are able to say almost anything without giving offense (I'm definitely not one of them but I keep trying), and there are employers like Brad Bird, but I think they're few and far between.

The upsycho said...

@Views You can add a fourth to that list. Me. It's how I came to be self-employed in the first place.

Clark said...

Karyn, loved the sandpaper line. Research has shown that someone who questions things won't be liked, but the output of the group is better. Courage is when you're willing to be the squeaky wheel despite the personal cost, to take one for the team.

And, personally, I love animated movies. Did so proudly before I had kids (visiting anime and animation festivals, for instance), but now with having kids, and now there's so much more and so much good stuff (yay, Pixar!), it's 'kid in a candy store' time.

The upsycho said...

@Clark Thanks. I have always tended to think in analogies and talk in allegories. It was the strongest piece of kit in my facilitation toolkit during my years as a f2f, classroom-based trainer. It plays a huge part in my writing skills, too... and my parenting, now that I think of it.