The Emperor’s New Groove is one of my favorite animated movies. It is an excellent blend of story, humor, and great characters, and if you haven’t seen it you must remedy that fact with all possible haste.
There’s a scene in this movie where the two main characters, Kuzco and Pacha, are stuck in a ravine, trying to climb out and reach the top. Neither can make it on their own; the walls are too steep and too far apart. In order to escape, they have to link arms — back-to-back — and team-chimney up the ravine walls by pushing against each other. This mutual force allows them to climb up and out and continue their hilarious animated adventure.
Now I’m thinking about talking llamas. Gotta focus.
When I start work on a creative project, I imagine it a lot like climbing out of a ravine. There’s a goal to reach and it’s going to take hard work to get there. We have to struggle, as a team, to make it out. I don’t believe in a conflict free creative environment. I don’t believe in success without friction. It takes different priorities and different points of view, all pushing against one another, to find the right way out. And that’s honestly good.
Except when it’s bad.
Because there’s a critical difference between struggling together, and struggling against. And too often, I think, I communicate to my coworkers that I’m struggling against them instead of beside them. Yes, I push you. But only because I want you to push me back. I push for what I believe will make the best visuals; the best animation; the greatest beauty. You push for what the client needs; for the story; for the budget; for the timeline. We push each other to reach a common goal. We push because that’s how we climb. But it takes trust to work, and it takes communication. I’m good at pushing, but I’m bad at communicating.
I’m hardwired to be a problem solver, but my style of solving is all about wrestling problems into submission. It’s a fight. And, because I’m an internal processor, most of that struggle goes on inside my head. Outside my head, I just look like I want to hurt people. Partially that’s just my face. But mostly it’s because the energy, the passion, and the work that some people do with their hands, and their words, and a whiteboard, I do in the silence of mental solitude. That’s just how I work. I can’t really change that.
Here’s what can change. I want us to trust each other when we work together. I want you to believe that when I push you, it’s because I care about the work we’re doing together. When I challenge a decision, I’m pushing for a better outcome. When I ask questions, I’m pushing for better understanding. If I argue a due date, I’m pushing to avoid missed deadlines. Sometimes I’ll push too hard. If I do that to you, please tell me. If I look uninterested and withdrawn, know that I’m really just inside my own head, pressure testing ideas. And if you just can’t figure out what I’m thinking, ask me.
For my part, I’m going to try hard to communicate better. As we exchange emails, collaborate in meetings, or talk at our desks, I’m going to externalize my thoughts more so that if and when I push, you can understand why — and trust that we’re on the same team. As bad as I am at showing it, I really do care about the people I work with. I care about the work we do together. And, above all…I care about whether or not you’ve seen The Emperor’s New Groove.
Seriously. Go watch that movie.