Management Matters
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Management Matters

How Apple & Pixar Foster True Collaboration and Make Innovation Inevitable

Practising these techniques will foster an for learning together and winning together.

Photo by Ruan Richard on Unsplash

Collaboration is hard.

People have different working styles and competing priorities.

As a competitive jerk for most of my early career, I wasn’t bad at collaboration.

But I also didn’t miss a chance to do things my way when the collaborative way didn’t suit me.

Then I was responsible for leading a group of people and managing a P/L.

And everything changed.

When it’s your job to get people to work together — and win together — you’re responsible for creating an environment where collaboration can happen with the least amount of resistance.

The way you organise work says more about your intentions than all your plans put together.

Take Apple.

The majority of Apple’s revenue comes from smartphones and services (e.g. App Store).

That’s not unique for a tech company.

What makes them unique is their track record for delivering innovative products wrapped in exquisite designs.

To make products that define new categories, Apple relies on the knowledge and intuition of experts.

That’s because people with deep expertise are the best at finding product ideas and unmet needs that don’t show up in conventional market research.

And since their goal is to deliver the most innovative and best-designed products, they’ve tied financial incentives for senior executives to companywide performance rather than revenue from a specific product.

Apple has organised its work to make innovation possible.

Splitting their experts into different business units would damage their ability to learn from each other and dilute the benefit of their collective expertise.

Not to mention reducing Apple’s ability to innovate by solving tricky technological problems.

Accountability can be encouraged through mutual reliance and shared goals.

And you need to be the one to teach collaboration.

We’re generally collaborative at work; we respect our colleagues and are open to others’ ideas.

But that’s not always the case.

True accountability comes from mutual trust and collaboration.

In an expertise-led organisation, no single team can succeed without collaborating with other teams.

It’s impossible to avoid pushbacks when passionate people get together to build wonderful things.

You need to encourage collaborative debate.

After all, we’re social beings who crave acceptance and higher status in our groups.

But arguments involving people who want to promote their ideas and reject others’ ideas roll back your progress.

Techniques for working together and learning from each other.

Following the examples of companies like Pixar, behavioural scientist Francesca Gino has identified a training technique that improves collaboration.

I practice the following steps.

1) Teach yourself to listen, not talk.

All too often, we’re not listening when others are talking; we’re waiting for our turn to speak — and sometimes we don’t even wait for that.

When we actively listen, we give everybody space to express themselves and give ourselves the chance to understand what’s said.

Listening is the most challenging part of active listening.

Especially when you’re halfway through your 30-minute planning meeting and anxious about making sure your ideas get heard.

You can teach yourself and others to become better listeners:

  1. Start each meeting with a clear agenda.
  2. Stop interrupting when someone else is speaking.
  3. Avoid the urge to argue and instead ask explorative questions.
  4. Become comfortable with silence.
  5. Expand on the ideas being presented.

Webasto teaches their leaders with their “Listen like a leader” course.

Each person takes a turn. They’re instructed to:

  • not pay attention to the speaker in the first round,
  • repeat what the speaker said in the second,
  • and paraphrase the speaker without paying attention to their feelings in the third.

The idea of the exercise is to show that simply hearing someone’s words is not enough; you also need to pay attention to their body language, emotions, perspective, and energy.

Pixar’s Leading from the inside out.

Pixar uses an exercise called “leading from the inside out” to help experts help each other improve their thinking without offering solutions.

During the exercise, the participants share the challenges they’re facing with collaboration.

The listeners are instructed not to offer a solution and instead help the presenter think through the solution by asking explorative questions.

2) Teach yourself to give and receive feedback.

Every good collaboration requires giving and receiving feedback. But giving constructive feedback isn’t about being ‘brutally honest’.

Good feedback comes from compassion, not authority.

Giving feedback and using it doesn’t come naturally to us. You can teach yourself and others to give and receive feedback better:

1. Be straightforward about how you address the person and what you say about them.

2. Identify the exact behaviour that worked (or didn’t). Don’t circumspect or use anecdotes.

3. Clearly describe the impact of that behaviour on you or others.

If you’re new to giving feedback, then writing down what you’d say following these three rules will help.

Pixar uses lessons from improv to help people make the most of the feedback they receive.

Pixarites follow the three principles of improv comedy when giving feedback during a collaborative session.

1. Accept all offers, i.e. embrace all new ideas instead of rejecting them.

2. Ensure that you’re building on someone else’s idea.

3. Make your teammate look good by enhancing their idea or project.

This ensures that your suggested improvement doesn’t include judgement or turn into an effort to steamroll your colleague.

3) Teach yourself to lead and follow

The myth of a born leader will lead you to believe that solid and overbearing people always get their way and make better leaders.

I’m calling BS.

People who can switch between leading and following add value and solve problems that leave everyone better off.

Flexing between the two roles doesn’t come easy to, but it can be learnt by:

  1. Delegating work to others and support them with completing it.
  2. Delegating work with an intent to free up your time to do more valuable work.
  3. Being open about your interests and allow others to share theirs with you. That’s the best way to win together.

Practising these techniques and teaching them to your colleagues will foster an open environment for sharing information and enthusiasm for learning together and winning together.

But it doesn’t happen by chance: it takes a skilled leader to create that kind of an environment.

Originally published at on August 2, 2021.




There's plenty out there for the C-suite. What about the rest of us-the high potential managers & up-and-comers. The future C-suite. Real leadership & management advice for front- and middle-management. A publication focused on management matters, because great management matters

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