We know nothing less than stellar, creative collaboration will do if we are to innovate and excel in this new world. Thus leaders have a new challenge: to create an environment, and more specifically meeting spaces, in which creative collaboration can take place. When we are successful in creating such spaces, two things occur: we find the best possible solution for the immediate question and we contribute to the long-term sustainability of the organization.
There is much research on how best to create physical environments that encourage innovation and creativity. Companies are beginning to include improved innovation/ creativity as part of their architectural / interior design goals. And our work in companies whose products and services are dependent on continuous, breakthrough thinking suggests that appropriate physical spaces do support innovation. But our work and research-based surveys also suggest there are other dynamics at work in organizations. These dynamics not only are critical for innovation but can be more important than that physical space in supporting innovation/ creativity. Some of these dynamics are the dynamics of creative collaboration that occur in meetings.
I’ve just finished reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. and in particular his discussion about the Braintrust, that group of people who created just such a meeting space and who continually drive Pixar towards excellence. I was taken by his discussion on the pivotal role candor plays in the Braintrust’s successful outcomes; candor is understood to be necessary if there is to be creative collaboration. Catmull’s discussion made me wonder about candor and how candor and other beliefs and behaviors active in the Braintrust might translate into the work each of us does with our teams as we create meeting spaces where creative collaboration can take place.
First, two definitions. Candor is the ability to say what one believes to be true and to do so without holding back. When candor becomes the norm, trust emerges. Trust is a clear confidence in another’s integrity and their capacity to get something done. As leaders we know we can set the tone for candor by letting it be known that it is something we value.
From Pixar’s Braintrust we see behaviors that strengthen a team’s capacity to be candid and that lead to creative collaboration. One: maintain focus on the challenge at hand. That is, focus comments on the subject at hand. Stay out of the realm of personal agendas, i.e., the need to be the person with the best solution, to get credit, to be seen as the leader. Two: continue to reinforce the idea that each person’s contribution is of value. Any comment is valuable even if it serves to take the discussion in another direction. Remember, that new direction may itself become the basis for a solution. In this way the conversation becomes additive rather than competitive.
Pixar’s Braintrust reminds us that candid feedback is important and rare and it should be inspirational. The best candid feedback is constructive criticism, i.e., feedback that builds out and creates anew, at the same time you are breaking things down. Good candid feedback is specific. It focuses on what is wrong, missing, unclear, or makes no sense. In doing so it opens the space for finding what needs to be added, made clearer, permitting the owner of the idea to expand his/her thinking. It makes no demands. And should candid feedback propose a fix, it does so to illustrate a potential solution and not to suggest the answer.
Pixar’s Braintrust suggests we need to consider establishing an environment in which candid feedback is an acknowledged part of the meeting process if we wish to increase creativity and innovation.
What practical application will you take away from Pixar’s Braintrust? We prefer to be specific when it comes to reinforcing effective team behaviors. So with constructive criticism, for example, we think letting people know specifically what constitutes constructive criticism is helpful. And a list of constructive criticism “do’s” on newsprint somewhere in the room can be useful in promoting self-monitoring.