I’ve written, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, about innovation in government. There are many examples, although many more are needed. Despite – or maybe because of – financial constraints and opposing interests who are ritually stuck in old debates, creativity rules in government as elsewhere.
But I was reminded by readers that public officials – or executives of corporations, for that matter – don’t always know how to create a culture of innovation. In response, I remembered a book published a bit less than a year ago, titled “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, the founder and CEO of the very successful animation film studio, Pixar, and now also the head of Disney Animation.
The book is partly a biography and partly about film making. But it is mostly one of the best books on management in a long time. Many reviewers rightfully cite his wisdom, balance and humility and note that this book goes beyond the usual superficialities of most management books.
Catmull talks about how to run a company in a creative business, but it applies to many other situations. It certainly applies to the software and technology business, in general. It also applies to government.
One of the major themes of the book is that things will always go wrong and perfection is an elusive goal, even in companies that produce outstanding work. Leaders need to set the proper frame for all stakeholders.
To put this in the context of politics, a successful elected official I know has concluded that it’s not a good idea to go around (figuratively) wearing a white robe, touting your perfection. As soon as one small spot appears on that white robe, it will be noticed and condemned by everyone. Instead, it’s best to let the public know that you too are human and will make a few mistakes, but those mistakes are in the interest of making their lives better.
Catmull puts it this way:
“Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”
“Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”
The last point has a larger message: that success is less about the right way [the process] to fix a problem than actually fixing the problem.
“Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on— but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.”
Government, in general, would do well to convert as many activities as it can from being processes to being projects, whose aim is to achieve clear and discrete results.
Along with many of us who have supported open innovation and citizen engagement, he points out that good ideas can come from anywhere inside or outside the organization:
“Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.”
And he adds that good managers don’t just look to employees for new solutions, but for help in an earlier stage – defining what the real problem is.
In government, you often hear the line that “information is power” and thus many leaders horde that information. Catmull, on the contrary, argues for the need for open communication:
“If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem. Many managers feel that if they are not notified about problems before others are or if they are surprised in a meeting, then that is a sign of disrespect. Get over it.”
Of course, actually having good communications isn’t any easier in government than it is anywhere else. Catmull suggests that it is the top leaders who have to make the major effort for good communications to occur and it is in their own interest. How many times have you been blindsided by something that others knew was a problem, but didn’t reach you until it was a full-fledged crisis?
“There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them. … As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.”
This brief review doesn’t do justice to the depth of the book. And I’m sure that many public officials could draw more parallels than I have.
Clearly the government would run better, the public would be better served and public officials would be more successful if creativity ruled in the public sector as well as it has at Pixar.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis