Criticism & candour

February 18, 2021
After years of success, Pixar started to show signs of becoming stale, with a lack of “candor” a contributing factor. How can organisations make sure people speak up at work?

Have you experienced much criticism or candour at work today?

In the book Creativity Inc, by Pixar founder Ed Catmull, candour is a recurring theme.

Catmull argues that in a creative company, people must feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line.

The book describes how at one point, after years of success, Pixar had started to show signs of becoming stale, and one of the contributing factors was a lack of candour. As Pixar grew rapidly in size, they took on more and more people, and some of those people were in awe of the company they had joined, and its past successes. Because they were in awe, they often didn’t feel they could possibly question how things were done – what did they know? Who were they to tell these amazingly successful people how to do things? Which meant there was a slowdown in fresh ideas from these new people - putting Pixar's carefully nurtured creative culture at risk.

Pixar's solution was to hold a “notes day” where a whole day was devoted to getting honest feedback from all its staff. They asked: what were they doing wrong? What could they be doing better? They held a series of workshops that asked people to answer questions like this:

Imagine it’s 2017. We’ve broken down barriers so that people feel safe to speak up. Senior employees are open to new processes. What did we do to achieve this success?

There are a few other interesting case studies in this area. Walt Disney employed a three room strategy for developing ideas. The first room was the place where dreams were dreamed, ideas were spun out, with no restrictions and no limits. Any crazy idea was freely developed. The second room coordinated the ideas and organised them into storyboards.

The third room, the ‘sweat box’, met to critically review the project to date with no holds barred. Once the ideas had been aggregated in room two, the critical process in room three was safe because it was the project rather than a particular individual that was being criticised.

One of the classic brainstorming cliches is 'no idea is a bad idea'. The prospect of criticism within brainstorms is something that's worth examining - ‘evaluation apprehension’ occurs when participants are afraid to voice their ideas because of fear of judgement, or peer pressure. This is where writers like Susan Cain (in her book Quiet) argue that the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted and don’t respond well to brainstorm situations.

But that most golden rule of brainstorming – no criticism – has come in for a fair bit of criticism itself. Charlan Nemeth from the University of California found that "Permission to criticise and debate may encourage an atmosphere conducive to idea generation", and "The introduction of new perspectives is more important than comfort for idea generation and the creativity of those ideas."

David Burkus (author of The Myths of Creativity) says:

"When ideas are still being developed or decisions still being considered, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas and helping increase that value."

And Burkus has his own insight into Pixar's approach, the concept of ensuring every criticism has a 'plus' element: "

Plussing means that anytime someone comments on another work, that comment must contain a “plus” — a way to improve or build on the work. Plussing gives the director or animator something they need besides just a critique, it gives them a place to build from and improve their work. Through plussing, Pixar has found a formula for keeping criticism positive, while positively improving the quality of their work."

What could you do to encourage candour and make sure people speak up more often in your team or organisation?

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