Coaching Session 15

Today’s audio is 11:23 minutes long.

Creativity-Inc.We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

I’m betting that’s not how it works in your organization. Not because I’m picking on your outfit, but because it’s just so rare.

Business and organizational leaders read books like “Good to Great” and get on a kick to become great, but never do.

Or they read “The Innovator’s DNA” hoping to cultivate that in themselves or their company, but they never find it.


Because preconceived notions are tough to overcome. The notions are really more than that. They’re beliefs. Beliefs are part of business intelligence, or strategic planning, or performance appraisals, or any of that other hard analytic kind of stuff we pride ourselves in.

It’s easier to speak about and hear about those hard facts and logic-based tools. We can wrap our head around a spreadsheet that shows us a line item that is out of whack. It’s tough to come to grips with a belief that those guys down in the warehouse are stealing from us every chance they get. It’s even tougher to be confronted with the truth that our belief about those warehouse guys drives our behavior and business decisions about them, and their work.

About 20 years ago I had a friend who was part of the management team for General Electric’s major home appliance division. Jack Welch was the big cheese at GE at the time. I was a big fan. I had read anything and everything I could find about Welch. My friend knew I was a fan so he invited me to join a few local business people to have a meet and greet with Welch at the Galleria Hotel in Dallas.

Herb Kelleher was running Southwest Airlines at the time. He was there, along with a few dozen other business guys who made me feel like a fish out of water. But I was honored to be part of the group.

We all sat in a small conference room where no more than 50 or so people gathered to hear Jack Welch impart some business wisdom. For many years GE had been known as a giant in innovation, leadership training and strategy. Welch began by telling us about a trip he had taken to Japan. He told us about the bullet train, that high speed train that has been part of Japan’s landscape for years.

Welch told us how the Japanese approach problem solving very differently than we do. I had read and studied Edwards Deming’s work in Japan following the end of World War II so I knew how that country had risen to manufacturing powerhouse status after the war, in large part to Deming’s work toward continuous improvement. Still, I was fascinated by Welch’s story.

When the problem is stated it presents the challenge pretty clearly. “How can we safely engineer a train that will travel at 200 mph?”

The Americans, Welch confessed, immediately start thinking about the locomotives, a business GE was in. They start considering how to make engines and other components that will reliably propel a train that fast.

The Japanese on the other hand, he said, start thinking about something very different. No, they don’t think about the engine. They don’t even think about the track. They started thinking about the bed upon which the track must be built. What kind of bed would you need for the track? Clearly, a very different approach.

Americans believe the problem is horsepower and propulsion. The Japanese believe the problem is literally a ground up kind of a problem. Those varied beliefs drive how they solve problems.

During a quick Q&A Kelleher asked Welch a question about strategic planning. I had read so much about Welch I knew his response, but it was delightful to hear him answer any way. Herb asked, “What’s strategic planning like at GE?”

Welch, in his usual New England-type bluntness, said, “It’s pretty simple. We look at the competition and try to find out what they can do in the next 18 months to nail us to the wall. Then we look at ourselves and try to figure out what we can do in the next 18 months to nail them to the wall. That’s our strategic planning.”

Jack’s belief that all the glitz and glitter that Wall Street looks for in strategic planning is mostly bull led him to force a more practical, real-world approach to GE during his watch. For him, it was about market share and GE being number 1 or 2. If you ran a division of GE that was number 3 in market share, then you were in serious trouble. It meant that 2 other competitors (at least) were nailing you to the wall. So Jack would close businesses, or sell them off. He earned the name Neutron Jack because he’d jettison people who were part of losing businesses, and he’d leave only the buildings standing.

The CEO who believes every employee is lazy and dishonest is going to operate very differently than the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull. That’s his quote at the beginning.

Pixar began in 1979 as part of LucasFilm. They were the Graphics Group, now best known for CGI-animations. Steve Jobs became a majority shareholder in 1986. Walt Disney Company bought the company in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion. They’ve produced 14 feature films earning over $8.5 billion and 27 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes and eleven Grammy Awards. Dr. Catmull is a founding member of the company. By all accounts, he’s as brilliant in business, creativity and leadership as he is in computers.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

What are your starting presumptions? Think seriously about them. Don’t censor them or spruce them up to what you think they ought to be. Face them as they really exist.

Do you presume most people are lazy? Apathetic?

Do you presume that most people don’t really care if they do good work or not?

Do you presume that most people will neglect the work unless somebody is there to constantly force them?

Do you presume that most people will give only an average performance unless consistent pressure is applied daily?

These are very common presumptions of leaders. Ironically, these are not the presumptions of highly innovative, creative and remarkable organizations. That may explain why so few organizations fit those descriptions.

What are the things you accept about yourself and your organization? Again, think soberly about these things. Be truthful with yourself.

Dr. Catmull accepts that – without meaning to – Pixar is stifling talent in a variety of ways.

Do you accept that your company is doing everything possible to help employees succeed?

Do you accept that every leader is providing the support and training necessary to fully develop people?

Do you accept that all your processes and systems are flawless, but the people are flawed?

Again, you judge for yourself simply by using your own career experience. Examine your own career and look at the bosses and cultures in your background. How would you describe your experiences? Have most of your bosses shown you  how it’s done, or have you learned how NOT to do it? Whenever I ask this question the universal answers lean toward the negative. Most people can easily talk about the impossible bosses or distasteful cultures. Some can point out a remarkable boss, but most can’t. Some can talk about a culture conducive to innovation, learning and excelling. Most can’t. In fact, many people think these are fictional concepts found only in books. Some doubt that such leaders or cultures even exist in the real world. Sad.

Let’s end on action. Dr. Catmull identifies Pixar’s actions. “Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

What is your company trying to identify and fix?

Are you trying to find out who failed so you can fire them?

Are you trying to find out who made the mistake so you can castigate them?

Are you trying to lay blame somewhere so you can avoid having the finger pointed at your department?

Again, these are beliefs that drive our performance. They impact everything that happens in our organizations.

Leaders show us the way. Either toward heightened paranoia or toward greater faith. You’re a leader. That’s why it’s important and urgent that you spend some time examining your beliefs and looking at how they’re helping or hindering your excellence. Fixing those beliefs is a different topic for another day. For now, you’ve got to make up your mind to correctly identify them and think about the impact (negative or positive) they’re having on your career, your organization and your people.


P.S. That quote is taken from Dr. Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc.

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