Waiting for Perfection

My former colleague Jerry Paffendorf, who is off re-inventing Detroit, shared a great clip of Pixar’s Ed Catmull talking at Stanford, via Protoshare’s blog. At around the 6 min mark, Catmull is discussing Pixar’s constant “peer sharing” process:

“In the process of making the film, we reviewed the material every day. Now this is counter-intuitive for a lot of people. Most people—imagine this: you can’t draw very well, but even if you can draw very well, suppose you come in and you’ve got to put together animation or drawings and show it to a world-class, famous animator. Well, you don’t want to show something that is weak, or poor, so you want to hold off until you get it right. And the trick is to actually stop that behavior. We show it every day, when it’s incomplete. If everybody does it, every day, then you get over the embarrassment. And when you get over the embarrassment, you’re more creative.”

pixar-shareprocess

It is a philosophy that I generally subscribe to for work-related projects (as opposed to art, although sometimes people get confused between the two to their detriment). I love open, honest and early collaboration and feedback, although to be specific I love open sharing and listening. Being willing to listen to many voices is very different from design by committee — at the end of the day, someone needs to be the owner.

Unfortunately, nearly everyone has been burned by sharing a draft too early in their career, so you have to work to create a safe environment. I have a hard enough time getting entrepreneurs who come to me for advice, and who should know better, share their raw work in progress.

Creatives (whether designers, coders, writers) need to accept that perfection is a moving and impossible target. One needs to put those emotions on the shelf and instead focus on the value of learning/validation, iteration, and progress rather than ego and genius.

The manager is responsible for establishing and ensuring a safe environment. The feedback needs to be on improving the ideas, not judging the person. The conversation cannot be about a person’s talent level. There can be zero tolerance of political agendas. Disclaimers should be minimized and should not be necessary (if they are, the culture needs to change).

The manager him/herself has to refrain from jumping to conclusions. It only takes one or two occurrences of a senior person nitpicking or taking a draft too literally to ensure that drafts are never shared again.

Eric Ries talks a lot about startup “myths” and indeed our field is rife with them. Here too, people get stuck on the myth of genius. Instead, people need to accept that diamonds start in very rough form, and that we can help each other form raw nuggets of ideas, whether our own or someone else’s, into something awesome. It isn’t enough having talented individuals on a team — the whole organism needs to work together.

Ultimately, people don’t like being vulnerable, and so perhaps Catmull’s biggest lesson is JFDI – that by having everyone participate and making this sharing process a regular thing, people adjust to it by virtue of sheer practice.

Final Note:
It isn’t short, but I recommend watching the whole video of Catmull’s talk, and in addition, I think any entrepreneur would enjoy the 2007 documentary The Pixar Story (from which I took that snapshot above).

  • So true, and yet so hard to do. I’ve been doing concept/usability testing with friends and former colleagues. They’re perfectly nice and helpful, but after most of the calls I still want to crawl into a hole when I contemplate how rough and incomplete our current alpha version is. Asking for feedback on an unfinished product is quite unnatural behavior.