Design Story
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Design Story

Don’t say yes to bad ideas.

Startup lessons from Madagascar

Deep in the middle of production on Madagascar, we hit some story trouble. DreamWorks brought in an outside cinematographer. He came to the job interview/salary negotiation with his Oscar in hand and opened the conversation by setting the little gold statue down on the table. He was awesome. He carried around his Oscar like you or I might carry a sack lunch.

We hired him. Within the first few days, we were in the editing suite reviewing the current work—rolling my shots and working through the story. My shots were fine, but we were in a place where “fine” wasn’t good enough. He turned to me (but was really speaking to the directors) and shouted:

“What are you doing?

You did exactly what the directors asked!

THAT will never work…”

He was right—I was diligently following orders, even though I knew they were a bad idea, because the directors had assigned me the shots and suggested that particular execution. I was just trying to be a good worker, but my good work was killing the film.

I learned a lesson: Never present work that doesn’t work.

After that, if one of the directors’ ideas wasn’t working, I still did it, of course, but I tucked it away to show only if he asked to see it. Instead, I always brought something to the table that wasn’t merely “fine” but was actually awesome. As a result, I got to add jokes, rewrite gags, fix broken plot lines, boost character arcs, in short, improve the product. I got to write the story, not just execute my assigned shots, all because I knew it was my job to do what the film needed, not just what I was assigned, while working to understand the vibe and style of the directors. I never went cowboy. I simply got into character and worked to simulate the decisions the directors would have made if they had the time to go slogging through the shots right next to me.

After a while, I learned how to ask in advance which requests were specific for good reasons (such as the details were needed for a different part of the story later), and which requests were accidentally too specific, and I had freedom to figure out what the film needed.

Build what people need

The next time you are in a product review, ask your team—what do the people who use our product every day need most? Are we giving them that? Are we helping solve their problem? Or making it harder to get to what they want? It’s easy to get stuck thinking you are supposed to ship a feature. Features, however, often get accidentally too specific. What you are really put on earth to do is to make people’s lives better through your product. So build what people need, and have the courage to express that need (and solution) in different places than just your feature.

Big idea: Don’t just ship a feature, build what people need.



Complements to the human condition.

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