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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Arc Of The Story

There are a lot of management books published every year. Some are great, some are good, many are awful.

Creativity, Inc. : Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace is not about organizational development, so much as organizational transformation. For many readers, that will be like trying to see infrared, but if you are careful and attentive, you can learn a lot.

Ed Catmull wanted to do a computer generated animation feature film. That took him over twenty years. He started as a Unix programmer at the University of Utah building tools that were shared in the community. He was doing open source before open source.

That led to working for George Lucas to provide computerized backgrounds for Star Wars. He was working at the edge of what supercomputers could provide feature films, but it wasn’t enough, yet.

When Lucas had to sell his computer operation, they were almost sold to twenty companies. Finally, they were bought by Steve Jobs, post Apple, and so began a twenty five year partnership, the longest Jobs had.

Now I read the tech press, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs  and Haunted Empire, by Yukari Kane.  I even worked for Steve Jobs as an organizational transformation consultant, until he got fired from Apple, before he met Ed Catmull.

I never bought into the Steve Jobs is a genius, Steve Jobs is an asshole reputation the media loved. He worked me hard and appreciated what I brought. For a time we were moving mountains.

Ed Catmull worked constructively with Jobs for far longer, and sees a better arc of the story, about a talented person who kept getting better at using his gifts. I like Ed Catmull’s appreciation of Steve Jobs. It is better, more nuanced, more valuable, than anyone else’s.

While he was in that relationship, he was running a supercomputer company called Pixar, and they quickly sold all the installations they were going to sell. So the same people who were building and selling the system became the best users of the Pixar system and did computer generated short movies that won Oscars and other awards.

Next they tooled up and created Toy Story,  the first feature length computer animated film. Ed Catmull had overrun his vision, and it was way more profitable than selling computer systems.

Catmull talks about the letdown of achieving his life work and formulating a next vision, to build a company that would do incredible work and nourish the people in the company. Once he defined it, he set out to build it, keeping the same key players while constantly expanding the team.

I noticed that he has been with the same posse for over thirty years. Their situation kept getting better, but people were by and large not replaced, they were developed, and kept on getting better and meeting new challenges. That’s an heroic perspective to emulate.

One of the points he keeps coming back to is the arc of the story. A great film needs a great story. He writes that if you give a great story to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre story to a great team, they will either fix the story or develop a better one. This book is a great story

A key message of the book is that all movies originally suck. The work of the team is to make them not suck. And he provides gripping stories of how that was done for every Pixar movie. This is one value of the book.

Page 103 - The difference between criticism and constructive criticism is that with the latter, you are not just criticizing, you are constructing.

Page 141 - There is a difference between reviewers who pounce and kill and reviewers seeking and promoting good ideas. Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.

Page 171 – Hindsight is not 20-20. We barely know what happened in our past. We only see a small part of what happened. So if you can’t see the real past and you can’t know future, the best strategy is to behave well, work hard, and not kid yourself.

Page 203 – How do we enable our people to solve problems is the correct perspective, not how do we keep our people from screwing up. The “keepers” can never see that they don’t contribute.

He has some awesome stories of casual heroics from the members of the team, how a mistakenly erased feature was not lost, how six months of rework was done over a weekend. Catmull takes a fierce pride from belonging to an organization that does heroics regularly. So does everyone else at Pixar.

But wait, there’s more!

The Promised Land  for animators is Disney Studios. But Disney Animation hadn’t done a successful feature in over a decade. Disney Animation management decides their most original work will be making sequels to Pixar movies.

Relations get frosty. Finally Steve Jobs tells Catmull and team they have to sell Pixar to Disney. Pixar needs Disney’s marketing and distribution capabilities.

There is a new CEO at Disney, who has been through two mergers, one good and one bad, who says this will have to be a good merger, otherwise the money is wasted.

Ed Catmull becomes president of both Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. The game becomes can he and the Pixar team bring their magic to Disney Animation: from building a successful culture to installing a successful culture...while keeping Pixar moving forward?

That is not easy, and the short answer is that they do. Both teams are winning awards, creating top grossing animations, and making money. To find out how they do this, you’ll have to read the book.

Ed Catmull reinvented himself at least three times, and brought his team along. Pixar’s celebration of Steve Job’s death had me crying, but I cry easy. If there was ever a CEO who saw through the bullshit and bravado to an honorable course in a changing environment, it is Ed Catmull. If you’re serious about being better, this is a book to read.

Looking for more? Check out The Final Frontier.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Doing Things Right Or Doing The Right Thing?

I was working with an organization and ran into a strange situation. The head of their skunk works was a hero for doing things right. He was an inspiration for having his team working effectively, following the right order of build, making lists, all the stuff I treasure.

The problem was nothing was coming out of his group. They were working hard, getting sweaty and loud, and were an increasing expense.

Finally, he left, being unable to “get the support of management (the fools).”

The Druid who replaced him was less formal, less rigid, and told good jokes. He looked at the two page list of projects, and abandoned most of them. A few were folded into other efforts.

In two weeks his team was shipping finished prototypes. Turns out they weren’t finished, because by supplying something that worked, we could see what else was needed.

And those improvements were incorporated in less than a month. We were shipping new products!

Trying to define the difference, I realized we had gone from doing things right (a necessary and good policy), to doing the right thing, which was cheaper, more valuable, and easier on the workers.

When you are generating more heat than light, are you doing things right or doing the right thing?

Here is more About Work.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Active Or Passive Investments?

I am working with a company owner who is getting himself ready to sell the company which has been a major focus for him for the last thirty years.

As we were putting his story together, he shared his memories of great things he did to get it off the ground and grow back in the early days. More recently he’s been hammered by outside forces, forced to take a different posture. Some years you’re the dog, some years you’re the hydrant.

Seems that exiting owners take the view that the history merits a premium price for an asset that they are passively managing.

Buyers are looking for an active, or even leveraged opportunity that they can control inexpensively.

The transaction is reconciling those two viewpoints.

Sales Lab Resources – Winning is fun!  

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Final Frontier

We are embarking on the greatest business revolution in 4 generations. It affects our whole economy.

The biggest change in ownership since WWII is starting now and will continue through the next 15 years. More than one half of small and medium business in the American economy are owned and managed by Boomers, and will have a forced change of ownership.

Who are they? Many current business owners have their personal fortunes, the scorecard of their careers, tied up in their businesses. They must find a way to get the money out of the business or assure its continuing viability, or have an unsuccessful retirement.

Do you know business owners in this situation – can’t figure how to get their money out? What do they need? Owners are looking for credible solutions.

We find that the keys to past success are usually the owner’s point-of-view and the culture of the company. We have found that outside solutions seldom work, they aren’t credible to the people doing the work, and they often have never worked elsewhere.

How do you begin creating a solution to a new problem? You should probably start with a common definition of what you have and what you want. Just defining those two often shows available solutions that were previously ignored.

We worked with owners of a technology distributor who wanted to sell the assets of the organization, had a figure from a recent audit, and hoped for a quick sale around that figure. We talked with them about what are the assets? In addition to office equipment and inventory – what else -  entity and name, customer records, sales process, industry knowledge?

Asked what they wanted, the owners said quick sale at top dollar. Which is primary – speed or price?

As our conversation expanded, the owners defined what they were selling (the complete entity, but retaining another separate corporation), had identified potential buyers (their knowledge of the industry could be useful to the buyer for transition), and that a couple of years was OK to get a better price.

Just getting the conversations and revelations took 90 days.

For a nonprofit teetering on the knife-edge of solvency, the conversation lead to determining a merger was a desirable choice strengthen the organization and keep the mission programs operating, then find partners, complete the combination of the two entities. The entire process took almost 3-years.

A contractor got 100% of their revenue from government contracts when we began the conversation about getting money out for the owners. What do you have, what do you want? The results over an 8-year period was to increase government revenue threefold, reduce government contracts to less than 30% of total billing, and to sell the organization for several multiples of its initial value.

A successful future begins with a conversation.

Rules of the road? Click: Selling Out