Pava/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Pava/Wikimedia Commons

How much work by smart people is mediocre? Many products in the marketplace are cumbersome, difficult, or just not that interesting to use. Many high budget movies are boring re-hashes. Many students know the weaknesses of their teachers better than the teachers do. We watch otherwise smart colleagues keep making the same mistakes, and we are no different. We are all flying blind when it comes to the gap between what we believe we are producing and what others experience. We go on churning out work that never affects others in the way we desired.

It does not have to be this way. We can use feedback from other people to help us produce greater work than we would be able to imagine without them.

Research has shown us what common sense already teaches: People who want to get better need clear information about where they could improve. Athletes have coaches. Mentors providing feedback on performance and ideas for improvement are part of the path to excellence in almost any field. But good feedback is hard to find. People often do not understand what we intend to do well enough to help us improve it. They may be attached to established ideas or have their own motivations obscuring their view. At the same time, there are people out there who can see the limits on our work that we cannot. How can we get the useful information without swamping ourselves in a sea of confusing opinions?

Pixar CEO Ed Catmull and his team have found a solution to this problem. While most other film studios produce movies of variable quality and appeal, Pixar has a reputation for turning out one brilliant and enchanting movie after another. In his book Creativity, Inc., Catmull identifies Pixar’s “Braintrust” as central to its success. The principles that guide the Braintrust fit well with what we know from research, but they have the practical wisdom only people on the front lines of creating great products could have developed.

The Braintrust screens films in progress and provides feedback to the directors. Their organization sounds pretty informal. They have a viewing of the developing film, eat some lunch, and the director and producer talk briefly about where they feel they are on track and where they are still struggling. Afterwards, everyone talks about the film and how to improve it. It is a simple process, and not on the surface any different than many less effective feedback groups, but there are some characteristics of how they do their work that are crucial. These are the lessons I take away from the Braintrust.

1. Negative feedback leads to breakthroughs.

To achieve great work, we need to search for critical feedback like it is the only exit out of a dark room. We have an aversion to receiving critical feedback because we assume that deep flaws in our work mean that we have limited abilities. What we are failing to recognize is that all work could be much better, and the only way to make it better is to address problems and limitations that we do not initially grasp. We have cognitive biases to assume we see the whole picture when we do not, so we often feel satisfied with what we have produced when it could in fact be much better. Someone pointing out the limitations of our work feels like a setback. But what it is actually doing is opening up the possibility of excellence. Catmull and the Braintrust understand this fact: “Early on, all of our movies suck.” They “only become great when they are challenged and tested.” “We are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking.” He goes on to describe a culture that they strongly protect, in which they actively encourage critical feedback.

Catmull gives one example after another where directors produced work that they loved much more because the Braintrust challenged them. For example, Wall-E originally had a conventional ending in which the bedazzled trash compactor Wall-E saves the beautiful droid Eve, whom he had fallen in love with at first sight. The Braintrust helped the director see the ending was disappointing. They suggested Eve defy her programming and go all out to save Wall-E. The director lit up at the idea and, at the next screening with the new ending, “there was not a dry eye in the house.” What director would not feel grateful to the people who had helped him touch people so deeply? He created it, but he needed their critical eyes to see the opportunity.

The principles behind the Braintrust apply to almost any idea we bring into the world. Consider the possibility that all of your work is like the earlier draft of Wall-E. It may be good enough, but it misses that element that would make it extraordinary. A culture like Pixar’s is rare. In most of life, work that satisfies the demands of our role is enough to earn respect and to keep us feeling on track. We rarely push beyond that. The result is that we live in satisfactory homes, watch satisfactory entertainment, and produce products and services that work well enough.

You can do a lot to invite the kind of feedback that will help you go way beyond the satisfactory. You can let people know how extraordinary you want the experience of your work to be. For example, a software engineer who is trying to adapt a programming platform to ease the life of her fellow programmers could say, “I want you to feel like the only barrier to you programming anything you want is the speed of your own thoughts. I know this product is not quite there. What is your experience when you use it? What could make it better?”

Presenting this message does two things. It gets people looking at your product through the lens of an ideal experience they may not even have considered, so that they can see where your work falls short by comparison. And it lets them know you want total honesty. Most of us hold back and don’t share what we really feel, because we are mindful of how sensitive people are about criticism. By showing them how much you value it, you help them get past their own barriers to giving you what you need.

2. Feedback should motivate you.

Great feedback confronts our limitations, but it is only useful if it spurs us on to something better. The last thing we want is to be stymied by it. People often become overwhelmed by critical perspectives, ending up confused and ultimately undermined. The whole point of seeking feedback is to discover the excellence beyond the limits of our current work. It is a treasure hunt for progress. If feedback does not help us on that road, it is either destructive or useless.

A great team can help us a lot with developing a productive relationship with feedback. In giving feedback, members of the Braintrust aim not only to provide information but to help the creator engage with it in the most stimulating way possible. Pixar director Andrew Stanton said, “Sometimes you talk about the problem in fifty different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do it.’ Instead of saying, ‘The writing in this scene isn’t good enough,’ you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting those lines.’”

If you do not start out with a team that is as skilled at giving feedback as the Braintrust, you will have to motivate yourself for a while. When you feel yourself getting discouraged or confused by feedback, remind yourself that the feedback is only useful if it engages you with an opportunity for something better. Ask yourself what that opportunity is. Make a habit of looking for opportunities for growth when confronted with current limitations, not stopping—even when discouraged—until you can visualize a path forward that you are excited about at least trying. Maybe your next try will be unsuccessful, but eventually you will find your way. Along the road, you will find people who get what you are doing and give you energy as they feel the thrill of seeing where you are headed. Hold onto those people. They are the first seeds of your Braintrust.

3. Feedback should leave you in charge.

Just because someone else can see something we do not see about our work does not mean that they have better judgment about how to move our work forward.

If you are fighting to bring a personal vision to fruition, no one else is going to be able to get it there but you. Letting others’ ideas and suggestions overwhelm what you are attempting will create a patchwork mess, not an integrated whole. Catmull and his crew knew that feedback gives the creator information, but only the creator can do the creating. The goal is for feedback never to pre-empt the director’s judgment about how to shape his work. Catmull says, “A good note doesn’t make demands. It doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer.”

It is often the case that the experience described by the person giving feedback opens up a creative opportunity, even when their suggestions are wrong. People’s experiences and their suggestions are very different things. In one Braintrust meeting, Brad Bird was presenting his first screening of an illustrated scene from The Incredibles, and the Braintrust was concerned. Helen and Bob Parr, the parents in the movie, were having an argument, and the viewers felt that Bob was bullying Helen (their experience). They wanted Bird to re-write the scene (their suggestion). When Bird went back, though, he felt like “That is what Bob would say,” and “That is how Helen would respond…. I don’t want to change a damn thing—but I can’t say that, because something is not working.” What Bird figured out was that Bob’s size in the drawings was dominating Helen, so he changed the drawings to make Helen bigger in the frame during the argument. When they re-screened the scene, Bird described people saying, “That’s much better. What lines did you change?” He said, “I didn’t change a comma.” The essential information the Braintrust had given Bird was their uncomfortable experience of a power differential. They knew what they were feeling, and that feeling was at odds with the director’s intentions. But their solution was just an idea—one possibility that came to their minds that in the end probably would have harmed the work.

Suggestions can be invaluable. Having a lot of ideas is helpful to any creative person, and it does not matter whether they come from within you or outside of you. Members of the Braintrust emphasize “put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.” But if suggestions do not open up new possibilities for your imagination, ignore them. Focus instead on what the person is sharing about their experience. Do you understand how your work affects them? If not, ask questions until you do. Then decide what you want to do about it. Once you understand the limits of your work, you are the only one who can steer it to a better place. Find a better possibility that makes sense to you.

4. Feedback should come from other creators.

If we are seeking to push our work beyond the norm and into the territory of excellence, we need to operate among people with the vision and the expertise to navigate in those uncharted waters.

In its effort to provide directors with just such a team, Pixar has established a commitment to being a filmmaker-led studio. The Braintrust is constituted almost entirely of people with a deep understanding of storytelling. They are the people with the expertise to get inside of each other’s evolving work and to see what is possible. Catmull describes the typical Hollywood filmmaking model as involving extensive “notes” from studio executives after a movie screening. The problem, he points out, is that these notes are unwanted. Directors feel the notes are interfering and meddling by people whose commercial incentives do not align with the goal of great storytelling and, more importantly, who are simply ignorant of the storytelling process. These notes are both demotivating and disempowering, as they second guess the creator with directives from above. Pixar has done a lot to keep the producers and other executives out of the creative process, even when one of those executives was CEO Steve Jobs.

People learn the most from other people who get what it is to create. Justin Berg is a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and his research has focused on identifying the people who have the best judgments about other people’s ideas in the business world. He finds that the best judgment does not come from managers or typical decision makers. It also does not come from the lay public. Adam Grant, in his book The Originals, illustrates the latter point by noting that test audiences panned the show Seinfeld – and no one now thinks Seinfeld isn’t funny. When people are making judgments about something new, they are jarred if it is not familiar. Both managers and the lay public are strongly biased by what they expect to see, based on what they have seen in the past. These are not the people you want to invite into the foxhole with you. You want people who share your fight. The people whom you want understand what a fresh idea is and how to turn an idea into reality.

So how do you find these people? Some of us are not working in companies like Pixar, where it is the norm to be stretching past our good work in order to make it into work that raises the bar. For the rest of us, we need to take a guerilla approach to building a team that helps us find our best work.  

If a computer programmer has the goal of improving the programming platform her company uses, she may not get the best feedback from the people immediately around her. They may be so used to doing things the way that they always have that anything new feels like a foreign language at first. Instead, she could go to others that actively think about how to make systems better. Maybe they are on other teams within her company. Maybe they are at other companies. Maybe they are very much senior to her. Maybe they are people who have inspired her when she has read about them in books. Regardless of who they are, she should reach out to them and see if they are intrigued by what she is doing enough to get down in the foxhole with her.

That is the great thing about becoming someone who is looking for the possibilities beyond the norm. The world of people who are trying to explore that territory is small, and they are excited to find fellow travelers. Even the very senior ones sometimes need the freshness of young minds. Discoverers need each other to provide an outside set of eyes that can show them what is missing when they have tapped the limits of their own imaginations. They need each other to challenge the complacency that leaks in after they have accomplished something they are proud of. And ultimately, they need each other to remember that the uncharted world of better possibilities is out there, containing new treasures to discover.  

As you start to find those people who make you smarter, they will become your team – partners in your collaborative process. You will want to rely on them again and again. Look for that Braintrust. Keep asking them to vet your ideas with brutal candor, and maybe they will ask you to do the same. Keep looking for the ways that they motivate you and empower your creative potential. In so doing, you are creating a new culture around you. “Good enough” becomes a starting point, and shattering its artificial barrier to create something better becomes a way of life.

About the Author

Cannon Thomas, Ph.D.

Cannon Thomas, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor at University of California, San Francisco, and a founding partner of San Francisco Group for Evidence-Based Psychotherapy.

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