Changing what already works (is a good idea)

Doing familiar things differently is deeply challenging. When those activities are highly successful, or seem to be, even the idea of taking on that challenge seems foolish. Yet, this is what successful teams and organisations do. They challenge themselves through a curiosity as to what will work better.

Apple is a good example (I type that awkwardly, as I dislike the smug pomposity of the brand, but credit where it is due). It exemplifies a limpid clarity on the problem to solve, and a restless curiosity as to how to meet the need better each time. Restlessness is another lesson for us workforce types to conjure with – stakeholders are not often so comfortable with that attribute yet that is where progress is made.

Reading this article about the latest Pixar triumph turned my mind to the lessons we might learn from their remarkable success. Before you close this browser window, I am not advocating that “We need a Pixar for learning!”. The Netflix phantom is quite enough for now. We might benefit from being a bit more Pixar though, by challenging what we know and hold dear.

In recent film releases, Pixar have started to break their own mould. The timeless, epic tales of Toy Story and Monsters Inc, have become more specifically personal, tying closer to an identity and less of a story type. The new release, Turning Red exemplifies this, drawn from the history of the director and writer Domee Shi. It is very much her story from her life experience. It may seem an obvious point, but it is a significant departure.

The story rules Pixar developed have been widely commented and debated. There are twenty two of them, and they are clearly very helpful in crafting a compelling narrative. They are not really rules at all, though. They are guidance and points of advice, sometimes prescriptive and sometimes reflective. Except for number four. That’s time honoured formula to ignore at your peril. Each of them has the clear ring of the ‘obvious in retrospect’ that I find admirable and slightly envy.

But they are not really rules. This is also important and allows their boundaries to be crossed a little more readily. Perhaps, this explains how Pixar have departed from their distant epic tale to their universal story born of deep personal insight.

Sometimes we need to make our evidence rather than gather it”

For me, the most useful insight is the journey of the writer and director. She previously won an Oscar for Bao, a breathtakingly beautiful short story of maternal love and hope. The series of Pixar shorts acts as a set of real life series of experiments for the company. They apply the same editorial and production principles and processes to ensure they are audience and market ready. They distribute them in pretty consistent ways, allowing the comparison of performance across pieces. There are strong clues here for stories ideas and audience response. It also proved to be a great talent incubator and scouting resource. We should all do this all of the time. Live audience experiments tell us as much about our own capabilities and resources as they do about our prospects with users. It is a great way for organisations to learn.

That testing also gave Pixar the insight to spot the opportunity in breaking their mould and the evidence to support new moulds to be crafted. Sometimes we need to make our evidence rather than gather it.

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