Because few people understood the technology, computer graphics remained niche. It took almost 15 years for people to recognise its wizardry.
“They needed John Lasseter,” says Dr Mannucci. “He blended classic animation tools with computer graphics. This helped people understand the novelty of animated features created by this technology.”
So if you’re a creative team with a unique toolkit, don’t expect people to fall off their seats when you reveal something ahead of its time. Instead, blend well-known, widely recognised tools with the latest technology.
Be knowledgeable, not expert
A team’s technical repertoire is central to creativity. To find connections between parts, in this case tools, and then recombine them in novel ways, groups need to understand individual capabilities. But how much do they need to know?
Teams require a shared understanding, but don’t need the fine print, says Dr Mannucci. “Over time, teams develop the ability to recall who masters which tool. This is known as a transactive memory system.”
Consider a jazz band. When musicians come together for the first time they know little about each player’s preferences. The more they rehearse, the more they appreciate each other’s patterns, riffs and licks: they understand how to make beautiful music together but are each master of one instrument.
Having a team focal tool helps; a technique every member can use and understand. For instance, Lasseter’s team weren’t all adept at classic animation, but they invested time learning the basic principles so they could communicate in a shared language.
Problem is, what if you speak too many technical languages? “Extreme diversity in techniques and tools can lead to miscommunication and a breakdown of coordination,” says Dr Mannucci.
“The ideal number of tools in a team depends on the field. It requires leaders and members to self-diagnose their team. For instance, if a group is highly coordinated but lacks diversity, the number of tools could be too low and vice versa.” Magic happens when teams strike the right balance.
Be experimental, with boundaries
In one interview, Bobby Podesta, the supervising animator of Toy Story 3, said: “My job is to convince you that the stack of polygons on the screen is actually alive.” Specialists can spend days convincing people like this.
Leaders have a Woody-sized role to play in building trust among creative wizards. Trusting experts because they’re experts is hard if you lack knowledge of individual specialisms. A team of star players with niche skillsets won’t get far without a Chief of Bridging the Gaps, someone to script a common vision.
Creatives are not always led by creative people so it helps when leaders get their hands dirty, explains Dr Mannucci. “Emerging research shows leaders are more authoritative when they try scut work – everyday work. The best leaders are knowledgeable enough to appreciate the complexity of a technological tool – how long it takes to carry out a task, for example – but they don't need to know how to use it.”
Such chiefs must build psychological safety through experimentation, but experimentation comes with a caveat.
“If you’re a leader, encourage experimentation with new technologies. At the same time, ensure trying new tools doesn't become the only thing you do,” says Dr Mannucci.
“Leaders should strike a balance between autonomy and constraint. It’s important to test new skills and tools so long as you blend them with techniques people already understand.”
Consider Pixar’s famous shorts. The studio has been making short films for more than 30 years and was designed to showcase innovations in software. Pixar continues to push the boundaries of technology. Its recent short film, Piper, offers an example.
The character Piper is a tiny bird with intricate feathers. But while the studio could simulate the look of feathers, it didn’t have the techniques to give them a glossy sheen when wet. Through trial and error, the studio designed a tool to hand-sculpt four to seven million individual fibres.
“Pixar’s shorts are the epitome of experimentation with boundaries,” says Dr Mannucci. Perhaps we will see a tiny-bird takeover in Pixar’s next feature film.
The future of work
Dr Mannucci’s research also has knock-on effects for the future of work, which will rely on engaging a dynamic mix of creative minds and will see the rise of gig workers. As such, creative teams will be an assembled cast of freelance professionals, cut free from their projects when the work is done.
The advice so far – be creative, not weird; be knowledgeable, not expert; be experimental with boundaries – is highly applicable to creative contractors. But Dr Mannucci also shares guidance for teams outside of traditional creative fields and R&D labs. “As a leader, you should assess technological competence when hiring. In this way, a tool becomes another measure of diversity.
“Knowing people’s proficiency allows you to assign the right members to the right team, either where competence is lacking or where you need a better spread of skills.”
Technology, he argues, is an active creative ingredient. “Technology is not just a means to an end. Technical tools shape the product itself and also the way it’s perceived.”
Pixar, which boasts 24 Academy Awards, pays attention to its technical toolkit – isn’t it time you did, too?