Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why people matter and so does the shape of your office

https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Strategy/Innovation/Innovation_lessons_from_Pixar_An_interview_with_Oscar-winning_director_Brad_Bird_2127  (registration required)

The McKinsey article, Innovation lessons from Pixar: An Interview With Oscar-Winning Director Brad Bird, struck me as the rare business article that has value.

In my own experience of managing teams and developers, I have believed that morale counts. Involving teams and creating enthusiasm is magical in its impact. I recall talking with a friend, John Plank, who has directed over 50 Broadway and off-Broadway shows. He commented to me that, "Direction is not about telling people what to do. Rather it is about assembling the right team. With the right team magic happens." This is an insight that most people miss. A CEO's role is typically more about assembling and motivating the right team. Nowhere is this more true than in high tech companies where judgment about highly specialized and changing technologies needs to be integrated with changing market needs.

Like any good CEO, Bird has the experience to look at problems from many perspectives. A good CEO must not run from technology. He must relish it and he must understand how technologies are developed, how features are prioritized and traded off against other features.

Other writing about Pixar have suggested that it was located in Emeryville to keep the notoriously hands-on (some would say interfering) Steve Jobs from wrecking the company. But the interesting insight from this interview is the role of the office space and architecture. Unsurprisingly to me, but surprisingly to many in Silicon Valley, giving private offices to developers increases productivity (research suggests that interruptions to a developer when he is deep in a problem may cause a 45 minute or more delay before he or she can return to the same level of involvement in the problem space). But importantly, mechanisms such as creating traffic to a central location and creation of interactions with others is also important. Cross training in apparently irrelevant skills to a current task also has both short term value (creating interactions with different skilled people) and long term value (creating more interesting, skilled and capable people as employees), besides the obvious benefits of exciting employees, keeping them involved and growing.