Culture Transformation by Pixar
Cartoons and fairytales may be great for entertaining kids, but the power of the best of them is that they speak to the adults in the room: the adults of today and those of tomorrow.
I’m a fan of Pixar. On and off stage they have poignant stories. Especially dear to me is Monsters, Inc. I love the characters, the adventure and, just below the surface, there’s a message about life and work.
The influences that shape my thinking on the nature and power of organisation culture are eclectic. From the ideas of Dan Pink, Brene Brown and Steve Keil, through books like Rework, Reinventing Organizations and Turn the Ship Around, to the very human work of people like Susan Cain, Rory Kilmartin and Esther Perel. In the midst of this company of ideas, a Pixar story sits quietly unashamed at the centre, illustrating the scene.
Spoiler alert, I’ll give away some of the ending so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend going for it, just as much for the animated short that precedes it, “For the Birds”, which was only recently matched by the prelude to The Incredibles 2, a short called “Bao”. OK, that’s enough movie reviews.
Where I started
The very start of my journey — the place that forged my determination to discover the power of culture for people and progress — is an improbable arc that starts in London with a book called Peopleware and ends in a cinema in Singapore with the closing scenes of Monsters, Inc.
As a junior consultant on my way to Singapore in 2001, I was handed a copy of Peopleware by a canny older colleague who had a habit of putting his finger on smart things ahead of the crowd. I devoured the book. From the outset, it bristled with contrarian wisdom.
Returning to it now in its third edition, the opening lines reiterate that people are not resources: “most of us as managers are prone to one particular failing: a tendency to manage people an though they were modular components”. The book is 20 years old but the message rings clear.
From extractive to generative
The authors explain that the hard problem of technology is not technology, it’s people. Work is primarily a social system, so the fundamental skill set is your level of human development.
They introduced me to polar-opposite mindsets: extractive and generative. As Simon Sinek explains there are two types of games: finite and infinite. Finite games are zero-sum, win-lose: extractive. Infinite games are generative. They’re designed to create rather than drain. They’re built for the long-term.
Extractive can get only as much value as is there to be taken. Generative has the potential to go on creating a sustainable, limitless supply.
I was hooked. A generative mindset underpins the development of a healthy work culture. An extractive mindset, by nature, mines what it perceives as resources, draining goodwill and ultimately ending connection and relationship. It’s “best practice” from that perspective, yet the results are dire.
Once you view it from the standpoint of a generative mindset, you can’t un-see it. It’s clear that an extractive approach is guaranteed to drain and degrade a human system. It sucks the life out of people and organisations, leaving us all worse off. Step back and look at destructive situations, from the financial crisis to climate change, and you’ll see extractive thinking hard at work.
Traditional management practice appears as a perfectly executed manoeuvre to eradicate engagement, motivation and the simple joy and pleasure of doing good work. Why would you do that?
If an extractive culture perceives people as resources to be maximally extracted for shareholder value: owned, controlled, juiced to the last drop and then replaced, how does a generative mindset approach designing a work culture?
I may have called my collection of influencers eclectic, and on the surface they are, but just below the surface there’s a simple thread running through them. It’s a generative mindset showing up in different areas of life: choosing to see and understand people as individuals, starting from a place of profound respect and dignity, developing genuine care and curiosity to see and support another’s humanity, finding and multiplying potential and being committed to each person’s life journey.
It may sound idealistic, but in my experience unexpected good things start to happen. Better things than could be planned for.
It’s a short hop from here to see how this enables someone’s humanity to flourish. When a whole person is acknowledged and made welcome, an intrinsically higher the level of energy, effectiveness and enjoyment shows up at work. Motivation without manipulation. This kind of humanity is powerful on both personal and professional levels, whether you’re the one creating the space or receiving it.
Work and life are no less hard, but they becomes so much less needlessly hard. Let’s be clear, occasionally helping someone find their path will lead them away from you. In my experience that’s usually a good thing. It’s better for you and for them that they’re in the right place. Letting go with grace can be the greater good.
Into my heart of darkness
Ironically for my junior consultant self who’d just read Peopleware cover-to-cover, no sooner had I arrived in Singapore than I landed in the middle of the most inhumane project I’ve ever worked on. It was bad. So bad that you could probably have doubled productivity with the courtesy of a genuine “thank you” to any team member.
Some of the most conscientious people I’ve had the privilege to work with reached such levels of despondence that they knowingly released software that didn’t even compile. The team were so dehumanised that not even their determination to do the right thing in spite of the company survived.
I was confused and furious. Why would anyone do this?
Not only was it plain wrong on a human level but, for want of a few ounces of civility, project managers were creating failure out of thin air by turning trusted colleagues against the work. The appalling treatment of the team — a hundred exhausted consultants crammed two-to-a-desk in a sick office — grinding through 7-day weeks of 14+ hours a day made tempers short and faces long. It was bad.
For me the story reached its zenith when my day in the office ended at 5:20am. My colleague and I had made a negative amount of progress that day. Our manager made it clear when he left at 10pm that we weren’t to leave the office until the system was fixed — and that we were expected to be in for the team meeting at 9. My colleague, normally studiously composed, yelled after him that he didn’t think that was very fair. Our manager replied, walking out, “I’m not here to be fair, I’m a project manager”. And that was that.
We ducked back down to our screens, boiling with a toxic cocktail of rage, defiance and spite. Seven hours later, we sent an email before leaving the office, bleary-eyed and angry, just to mark the time. Seven more hours of work and the system was even more broken than before. We’d worked through the night to achieve sub-zero productivity. We didn’t turn up until 11 the next day. Despite the lack of sleep, we fixed the issue in about half an hour the next morning. The relationship to our manager never really recovered.
People and productivity fell apart. Nothing in that equation made sense, or progress.
I was young. I didn’t react well. I was a nightmare to manage. I had more opinions than experience and I wasn’t backward in putting them forward. “Petulant child” is probably too generous a depiction of how I must have come across. It takes a lot to drive someone to such a dark place but I’ll take my share of responsibility for how I reacted. What makes it doubly hard though is that, aside from my tone, what I was trying to say wasn’t actually wrong.
It would be an appalling way to treat anyone, but to materially harm the project in the fell swoop added productivity insult to human injury. That pain was not gain. I didn’t have the language to express it at the time, but the one thing I was able to hold on to was a determination that “my only license to complain is if I choose better when it’s my turn”. Now it’s my turn.
I’m thankful for having come through that experience. Would I choose it again? Hell no. But it’s my history. Every mile mattered. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that scar. It’s a scar that has driven me, hungry to figure out how to choose better, do better. I’d love to be able to put an arm around my younger self and say “it’s going to be OK, together we’ve got this”. The story will work out in the end.
Which brings us to that cinema in Singapore. It’s my last week on that project, I’m watching Monsters, Inc. with a local friend and it’s my birthday. The premise of the story is that monsters have to collect the screams of children waking up to things that go bump in the night. These screams provide the energy needed to power the city of Monstropolis. The company strapline is “we scare because we care”. The trouble is, children are becoming desensitised at earlier and earlier ages and it’s getting harder and harder to collect enough scream. The company is struggling to meet its targets.
In the end (spoiler alert) our heroes discover that making children laugh is way more effective. It turns out laughter is 10x more powerful than scream. And that’s my point. If scream is extractive, laughter is the generative. A total transformation. Who wouldn’t want to laugh and keep laughing?
So I’m working to uncover, understand and practice what it means to intentionally create a human space and to bring that to work. A generative mindset is the missing link between doing good and doing well. I intend to build that space with and for as many people as are looking for it.