Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

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The core skill of innovators

In reflecting on how we create innovation in the social sector, I came across this great talk by Randy Nelson of Pixar University.  He starts off by describing the problem NASA had: when they were looking to hire someone to walk on the moon, they faced the problem that no one was deeply qualified for that job.

If you want people to do new things, he asks, how do you screen for that?  One of the many money quotes in this talk:  “The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance.”

I love it.

And, by the way, this mindset is not, generally speaking, how the nonprofit sector (NGOs and funders both) thinks about itself.  We need more risk takers.

Other thoughts he shares on what he looks for:

1. Depth. Preference for the “proof of a portfolio rather than the promise of a resume.”

2. Breadth.  “We want someone who is extremely broad…we want someone who is more interested than they are interesting.”

3. Communication.  “Communication involves translation….do the translation at the sending end so it doesn’t have to be translated at the receiving end.” (techie to artist communication, for example)

4. Collaboration. “The amplification you get by connecting up a bunch of human beings who are listening to each other; interested in each other; bring separate depth to the problem….”

How to find great people to do new things and who can translate from one world to another.  That certainly sounds like the kind of thing we should know more about in the social sector.

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