Like many of you, I'm a big time fan of Pixar. I love many of their films, but what I idealize is the perfect marrying of art and technology that brings great storytelling to life. There is a mystique that surrounds their ability to get their teams to create 'the best'. It's been my long term dream to be part of a team that has that type of drive to create things that go well-beyond the status quo.
Last Spring, my cofounder Steve Polacek gifted me a copy of Creativity, Inc. by Pixar/Disney President Ed Catmull. It was a great read, but one of the most interesting things Ed described is how they went about attacking the disconnection of lost ideas and feedback between teams as they grew. This wasn't just collaboration on a particular film, this was the overlapping of processes between departments, how feedback was given by management, why things were the way they were, etc.
What was going to be a 2 hour management meeting, evolved in a proposal to shut down the entire company for a day (including janitorial staff). They created a schedule that included breakout sessions in a series of subject-specific brainstorms with the focus on how things will be done in the next 2 years. Ed describes the structure and incredible results of that day and how the team is already anticipating next years. It's a must-read.... my palms are getting sweaty just typing this.
This. Was. Cool. On the surface it doesn't seem that radical. A series of meetings about process? Borrrinnngg. The hidden genius wasn't professional development. What they were really doing is creating a 2 year vision for the company WITH the team instead of FOR the team. This is a platinum example of bottom up management.
We were inspired and the timing couldn't have been better. Eight Bit was growing quickly and our previous experiences at other agencies had shown that when companies grow, they start to suck and eventually self-destruct. Don, Steve and Brett and I got together and boiled it down to three major reasons this happens.
Lost identity. Teams lose sight of why they come in each day and stop doing the things they did to become craftspeople — experimentation, research, communication, training, etc.
Settling. Teams rely on the processes they’ve gotten comfortable with over the years — putting limits on themselves instead of pushing into places outside their comfort zone. They don’t voice their opinions. Or when they do, it’s just talk and no action. They just accept things for what they are. It’s a job.
“Management” thinks they’re God’s gift to good ideas and improvement. Teams stop listening, stop improving and every change is either driven by money or logistics. The company becomes that of 2 heads: “Do this and it will be good” and in turn, “I’ll do this, but see how long I care about this place.”
It was time to shut down the operation for a day. 8bit Iter8 was the beginning of a new iteration for Eight Bit Studios. We structured the day in similar ways to our iteration planning meetings by breaking it up into sessions. The initial categories for discussion were informed by survey we sent the team prior to the event. We gathered the feedback and consolidated them into 4 major themes:
- How we onboard - new team members, clients, strategic partners
- How we ship - ux, design, development, project reports, etc
- How we communicate - what we communicate and the form factors timelines or structure for that communication
- How we balance work / life - what helps us live a more fulfilling career and personal life
On the day, we broke 0ur 24 member team into smaller working groups. In each group there was a stack of cards for that session. The cards were broken into three parts: "In 2017 we...", "We do it because...", "We can start today by...". Members within each group then filled out 1-5 cards each. We spent some time discussing our ideas and adding notes or creating new cards. We then brung all the groups back together to discuss the themes across the cards and to bring attention to unique ideas we heard in the sessions.
The first year we did this, we weren't sure what to expect. We were warned by mentors and friends that gathering feedback is meaningless without investment and action. So, with the help of whole team, we went about implementing as many as the good (and common) ideas we could.
The result and how we evolved as a company in the first year was staggering. We retooled how we onboard new members of the team, created giant calendars for teams and events, reserved standard days for no meetings, creating more opportunities for sharing passion projects through lunch and learns, hosted and started meetups, refined the teams involved in documentation, planned more outings and launch parties, created our own tools and published them for others, converted a majority of the team to w2 and tailored our benefits package, and made loads of refinements to small parts in our communication and process with our clients. We even got a damn robot and it's changed how our remote workers communicate and engage within the office. Our attitudes didn't just change, our environment was beginning to reflect our collective vision.
Last week, we did this for a second time showing how much we achieved in just the 1st year (it's always a 2 year plan). This year we limited our categories from 4 to 3 and added some cheat sheets. We also shared the themes from the breakout sessions with the whole group. We're really proud of what we achieved together and what we hope to achieve in the next 2 years.
Reflecting back, there comes a point in our careers where we start to be measured by what we DON'T DO, rather than what we DO. As an owner, that often puts a huge weight on the single perspective for where you (and management) think the team should be going and the priority of matters it should be tending to. Although that type of strategy and leadership is critical, it also paves the way for ignorance, lack of strategic feedback and missed opportunities.
We don't think it's enough to just collect feedback. The challenge is to come up with frameworks for channeling feedback that can be converted into action. In this case, we wanted to illustrate how important vision statements are to achieving a new vision of future self. Instead of it being a list of personal goals, it's a demonstration of how our collective goals lead to better ideas and more effective (and strategic) decisions. As a result, the Eight Bit Studios is stronger and more focused than it has ever been.
Thanks Ed & the Disney/Pixar team for inspiring us!