How Technology Led Innovation Can Help Foster The Next Generation Of Creative Storytelling

Freedom to innovate is the one thing that keeps a passionate creative technologist inspired and keen to take on the toughest of challenges. Take this freedom away and you’ll most likely end up with a bunch of discouraged engineers slowly withering away into a useless lot incapable of producing magic.

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc., the incredibly inspiring book on being a part of a creative business by Dr. Ed Catmull, President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

For me, the book once again brought forward the question I’ve faced time and again during my work in the field of media and entertainment technology. A question that has no single answer:

Why is it difficult to innovate in a large enterprise?

A subject worthy of zealous deliberation, in his book Dr. Catmull links the problem of lack of innovation to a general hesitancy in people to accept change.

“An organization, as a whole, is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it. Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change — it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.”

Those who’ve been in the thick of things will list some reasons why technological uplifting is not easy to come by in large corporations. Based on my experience working in both small and large visual effects studios, I can firmly say that it’s often our inherent resistance to leaving the comfort zone that is the biggest hurdle in achieving excellence through innovation.

We want to keep doing what we know best, and for technology that’s forever evolving, this proves to be a massive roadblock, if not the end of the road.

What can we do to encourage technology-led innovation?

The one thing I would do here is to bring back the quintessential startup spirit and work from the inside out — reinstate a culture of zestful creative innovation within small teams radiating outwards into the entire organization. The sense of drive and passion that I see during my interactions within the San Francisco startup community convinces me further that for innovation to thrive, people driving it need to be given more power and autonomy.

We need to tweak the existing flow of ideas into a structure that fosters communication and sharing among different groups within a large setup.

In my experience, fostering a Lean Startup approach is one of the most effective ways the technology landscape can be rid of its glacial inertia. More and more technology startups need to consider adopting this approach so they can fine-tune their product to best serve the needs of their customers. Hard work is appreciable, but it’s smart work that will get your prospective users interested.

Agile methodologies, and innovation accounting — as described by Eric Reis in his book The Lean Startup — could truly be the way forward for a technology-driven creative business that wants to retain their edge in a competitive environment.

I also believe we can’t be making the same mistakes over and over again. There is tremendous scope for knowledge-sharing, experience-sharing and collaboration within the tech startup community. The VFX Tech Meetup group I started recently in San Francisco is one such attempt to get experts and tech entrepreneurs from the industry to meet and interact.

What is the role of the Technology Leader here?

Walt Disney — a technology innovator, well ahead of his time — brought about revolutionary changes in the way visual effects and animation were produced and consumed in film. He combined technology with storytelling without allowing either to overpower the other. And his legacy continues to persist throughout the company he founded.

That’s how I envision the industry I care deeply about — a place where creative storytelling and technological innovation work hand-in-hand to produce spectacular work. Where departments don’t work in isolation but with one another with the common goal of doing what’s never been done before.

On more than one occasion, I have come across mid-level technologists and engineers from the industry complaining how the lack of effective leadership within a company curbs initiative and out-of-the-box thinking. I believe leadership today is no longer about spearheading your team onto a preordained path. It’s about being an assertive harbinger of change, and letting your team know that when it comes to innovation, they are free to speak up — and that they can count on you to be their voice.

In closing, to quote Dr. Catmull once again,

“Our job as managers in creative environments is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Protect the future, not the past.”

Indeed, it’s time we made sure the past is there to nurture the future, and not stifle it!