Things I learned from Ed Catmull

 

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A few months ago I heard Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, give a talk about leading creative organisations.

Apart from his obvious experience and track record of success, what was clear was that he had thought very deeply about some crucial questions about leadership.

These are some notes about what he said and thoughts that he provoked. To be clear – they are not direct quotes – they are my recollections and thoughts based on my notes of his talk (what I learned rather than what I heard).

Be prepared for near death experiences on projects. All Pixar movies “suck” at first. They are radically altered again and again until they work. Every Pixar film except one – Toy Story 3 – has  gone through a phase of intense crisis during its development.

Most people want to avoid the “near death” part of the creative experience, but it is very often essential in order to get to something really good. (This reminded me once again of the valley of creative despair that is the liminal state.)

A leader’s job is to maintain a balance of power. In a studio – just like an agency – there are business functions like finance, production, creative, marketing, technology etc. Organisations fail when one of these functions “wins” and dominates the others with its agenda.

For instance, in studios where production wins, films are produced on time and on budget, but creatives become demoralised and produce lower quality work and talent leaves. A CEO or President needs to make sure that no part of the organisation becomes dominant and skews resources with its particular agenda.

Business books are curiously free of content. Very often business books state obvious truths and avoid more difficult questions.

Smart people make stupid decisions. This is a puzzle that more business books could do with taking on – rather than succumbing to narrative bias, or focusing on successes. There should be more books about failure, more conversations about why we do stupid things.

Leaders can’t see the things that are going wrong. When an organisation is bound for failure What are the forces that I can’t see, is the question a leader needs to constantly ask themselves. People will be behaving badly at times – but they will never do it in front of you.

You need to make the information flow separate from the organisational structure. This reminded me of Churchill, who set up the Office for National Statistics so he could hear what was really going on – rather than allowing each department to gather data and report in their own way, influenced by their various agendas.

You need people to be candid, not just honest. Politeness, respect, embarrassment, fear, blinkered-visions/solipsism, and other things can stop people from being candid. His job as CEO is to spot those things and stop them. Often leaders will prevent candour with their presence in a room, unless they build trust and make it clear what behaviours are acceptable.

Protect new ideas. New ideas are vulnerable, delicate things. If they are good ideas they need to be protected, allowed to develop in a safe space. Success at Pixar and other creative companies is about creating safe spaces for creatives and ideas to flourish.

We are always operating in a fuzzy space. We have to be comfortable doing that. Again, invoking the liminal state for me, Dr Catmull talked about the need for creative leaders and creatives to work in and with uncertainty. We cannot deliver genius on schedule, we need to be comfortable with that. We do not know what the final iteration of the story will look like, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know what the technology or media landscape will look like more than about six months from now, but we have to make plans for the next six years – and know they may look as different in the final version as Up looked from the first idea for that story (a castle floating in the clouds full of people at war with the people on the ground, apparently)…

Adam Curtis on the struggle to tell the story on (and of) the web – Notes from The Story – Pt 2

* * Update: the audio for this talk is live at the Storythings blog * *

We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.

Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.

The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:

Can you use the web to tell stories?

  • Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
  • He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
  • The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
  • The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
  • So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
  • It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.

The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust

  • Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
  • He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
  • the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
  • Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
  • “The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”

What history feels like as it happens

  • Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
  • When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.

Follow the power

  • Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
  • The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
  • If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
  • There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
  • Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).

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Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…

Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:

  • The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
  • There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
  • If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
  • Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…

: : If you are interested in ideas about how power works, I think that Dan McQuillan is a good person to follow, read more of – he discusses the idea of power literacy and how important that is in affecting change in society. Dan – shout if I’m wrong on that…
: : To read more about Adam Curtis’s thinking and work, his BBC blog Adam Curtis_The Medium and the Message is the best place to start…