Learning from the creative industries - consistency to build trust
This is the first in a series of discussions looking at factors that enable teams to be successful, drawing from sources inside and outside software development to help understand how organisations can set their teams up for success.
Alistair Cockburn, one of the founders of the Agile movement, states that “software development is a goal-based game of invention and communication” – invention needs creativity, and teams don’t achieve creative cohesiveness without consistency.
In the June 2010 edition of Wired magazine Jonah Leher wrote an article titled “Animating a Blockbuster: Inside Pixar’s creative magic” in which he examines the creative process in use at Pixar Animation Studios. He states
“Since 1995 when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has made nine films, and every one has been a smashing success. Pixar’s secret? It’s unusual creative process.”
He contrasts Pixar’s approach of assembling a team of writers, directors, animators, and technicians who work together over many projects with the industry norm of bringing together a cast of freelance professionals who work together for a single project, and then disperse.
According to Leher: “the studio has built a team of moviemakers who know and trust one another in ways unimaginable on most sets”
He points out how Pixar’s process requires deep trust among the team, and the ability to handle feedback on the quality of the work being done. Each day the team review the work done the previous day and “ruthlessly shred” each frame. This constant feedback cycle enables the team to continuously improve the quality of the work being done, and the product being developed. This process involves every member of the team, "even the most junior staffers are encouraged to join in", the intent is to learn, adapt and improve in a short cycle time - something that should be very familiar to anyone who has worked in an Agile software development team.
This safe to fail environment is one of the key aspects that makes Pixar so successful. Leher quotes Lee Unkrich (director of Toy Story 3) who says “It is important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up. We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible”
Pixar is a success by any measure – their average gross per film is US$550 million and they are loved by audiences and critics alike. They're clearly doing something right, how can software development learn from their approaches?
Does your organisations environment encourage the formation of long lasting teams, and a safe-to-fail culture, how can we nurture more of this in the software development world?
I must say, I didn't realise the extent of Pixar's success until you highlighted it here. They have won at least 1 Academy Award per film! And as you pointed out, the secret to success: forming a long-lasting team that has a safe-to-fail culture.
In my organisation, I rarely see the same teams working together and it seems to be different people on every project. It is also claimed that it is safe to fail, because we are Agile, but I feel as though it is hit and miss here. Maybe it's time to take a leaf out of Pixar's book!
Ben Linders May 28, 2015