Implementing Change and Adapting to Randomness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is implementing change important? How can you get better at implementing change?

Implementing change is an important part of building a successful organization, according to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. Things can’t always stay the same and you have to adapt to the randomness or pursue changes to stay successful.

Read more about implementing change and what Ed Catmull says about it in his book Creativity, Inc.

Implementing Change: Why It Matters

Another of Catmull’s keys to building a successful organization is implementing change, accept randomness, and find your blind spots. Many creative organizations fall into the trap of holding onto systems that worked in the past without understanding why they worked. They try to force a process onto a problem or concept, even if that process isn’t the most effective for the project at hand.

For example, when Pixar started work on Toy Story 2, they believed the process they developed on Toy Story would allow new directors to succeed at the helm of the project. What they failed to recognize was that the reason Toy Story was successful wasn’t because of the “process.” It was because of the people. Without the right people, the “process” was hollow and almost led Pixar to its demise.

Many people believe, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” meaning that processes that have worked in the past don’t need to be changed. This can be a dangerous belief, especially in the long term. 

Change is necessary. The world is changing all of the time, and you have to adapt accordingly. Just because a process has “worked before” doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for new issues or projects. You have to introduce new ideas to meet the ever-changing needs of your organization. 

For example, Catmull wasn’t a fan of Pixar making sequels. He built Pixar on the foundation that new and original projects were the most important thing to the organization and viewed sequels as “creative bankruptcy.” However, over time, Catmull changed his view on the importance of sequels. They usually produced high box office returns and freed up the company to use their funds towards new and experimental projects. Because of this, Catmull had the studio produce a sequel every other year to ensure they had the constant income to experiment with new concepts without putting the company at risk.

This isn’t to say that you have to make changes for the sake of making changes. There are reasons to keep processes in place, especially when they’ve been created to combat specific issues. However, too many well-intentioned rules and restrictions can kill a creative process.

Alleviating the Fear of Change to Get Support for Implementing Change

People are afraid of enacting change because change is often associated with a “broken” or “ineffective” process or product. People don’t want to look incompetent and will often try to lobby for their work, even if that work isn’t effective. This fear can cripple your team and make them unwilling to adapt. If unaddressed, this could have disastrous consequences. 

For example, as the Silicon Valley computer race continued through the ‘90s and 2000s, companies that were willing to change their focus according to new developments in technology succeeded. However, companies such as Silicon Graphics tried to continue selling large, expensive computers instead of investing in more economical models. While this kept them afloat in the short term, their aversion to change killed them in the end.

The following are a few tips to help you alleviate the fear of change:

  • Discuss the importance of implementing change. Assure your team that changes aren’t always made because someone failed. They’re often made to adapt to a changing world that’s outside of their control. 
  • Take off the blinders. When you and your team have mastered a particular process, it’s often easy to ignore glaring issues. Take the time to look at the process you have in place and point out issues to your team. This will make them understand the need for change and help them let go of the process.
  • Embrace the learning curve. When new processes are introduced, it may take your team a bit of time to adjust. Accept that there may be some errors at the beginning and avoid punishing your team members for mistakes. If you do, they’ll be averse to other changes you may want to make.

Accepting Randomness

Often, success and failure are due to random events. They can’t be predicted and can come out of nowhere. This is not an easy concept to grapple with because our brains aren’t wired to accept randomness. We like to discover a cause and an effect, but random events don’t adhere to these patterns. For example, you could be the most well-prepared person in the world, but if your car breaks down while you’re on your way to an important meeting, things may go downhill by no fault of your own.

Random events aren’t always bad. Sometimes, they’re the spark that leads to a new project or unexpected growth in a new employee. However, for these events to be effective, you have to be ready and willing to invest time in developing these random occurrences. 

For example, your team is working on a new film about animated birds. For all of the new ideas you’ve tried to bring to the table, everything has felt derived or unoriginal. During a break, a few of your team members watch an unrelated video about a singing competition. This sparks an idea for a direction for the movie: an animated film that focuses on the importance of a bird’s “singing.” The random event of your team watching an unrelated video led to an idea for a new project. 

Addressing Random Issues

Most people have been taught since they were children that hard work will yield success. While hard work is important, there’s another factor that plays into achievement: adaptability. When a random event throws your regular process out of whack, you have to be prepared to make adjustments.

For example, your marketing team has been preparing for a pitch meeting with the executives. An employee has worked for tens of hours developing designs for the pitch packet. A few days before the meeting, their computer crashes. With only a couple of days to adjust, you have to make some changes to meet your deadline. 

When dealing with random events, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t play the blame game. You can’t blame an individual or single team for not predicting an issue if it’s truly random. Accusing people of not predicting a random event is absurd and unhelpful.
  • Troubleshoot quickly. Immediately begin to diagnose the issue and adapt. The sooner you figure out a solution to the problem, the more likely you are to get back on track. For example, if the person meant to deliver a presentation gets sick and can’t make it to work, don’t spend your energy freaking out. Get their notes and prepare to give an impromptu presentation yourself. The sooner you begin to study their presentation, the smoother it will go. 
  • Don’t ignore small problems. Because time is finite, it’s easy to put all of your energy into solving “serious problems.” However, ignoring smaller issues can lead to an unexpected serious problem down the line. Respect every issue that comes to your attention, because you never know which problem may lead to more serious issues.
  • Give your teams a level of autonomy. When it comes to navigating the needs and issues of different departments, it’s impossible to address every single problem as it arises. As a leader, if you feel you need to be involved in every decision, problems won’t be addressed quickly enough, and your organization will drown in “smaller problems.” Instead of directly engaging with every problem, allow your employees to address issues as they arise. 
  • Develop precautionary measures. When a random event happens that you and your team weren’t prepared for, it can require a lot of effort to get things back on track. After you’ve solved an issue, look for what went wrong and figure out if there are precautionary measures you can put into place to avoid them happening again. For example, at Pixar, an employee working on Toy Story 2 accidentally deleted hundreds of hours of work after typing in an incorrect code. Thankfully, a Pixar team member working from home had a back-up, and they were able to restore most of the work. To avoid this issue in the future, Catmull had his team install restrictions into the software that made it much more difficult to delete files. He saw the issue that caused the accident and put protections in place to avoid a similar accident happening again. 
Implementing Change and Adapting to Randomness

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  • How Pixar went from selling computers to successful animation studio
  • What it takes to build a creative workplace culture
  • Why George Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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