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Trying to be creative? Don’t be too unique

The best creative teams pay attention to their technical toolkits. Pier Vittorio Mannucci explains

By Pier Vittorio Mannucci and Anna Johnston . 26 September 2017

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Throw together a diverse mix of creative brains, sit back and wait for the magic to happen. That’s the sure-fire recipe for creative work if you believe everything you read. It’s true that diversity is a crucial element of group creativity, but research by Pier Vittorio Mannucci, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, sheds new light on the relationship between uniqueness and creativity – and it hinges on technological toolkits.

Dr Mannucci takes us on a dynamic tour of the Hollywood animation industry and finds that the technology used by creative teams matters more than we think.

“As a leader,” he says, “you might wonder why your team fails to be creative when it comprises members with novel expertise, from different backgrounds. But you need to pay attention to the tools they use in their work.

“Technology actively shapes how people react to products and how effectively teams collaborate.”

Be creative, not weird


Since 1995, when the smash-hit Toy Story was released, Pixar has produced 17 feature films and raked in a whopping US$11 billion (£8.15 billion) at the worldwide box office. Characters behind Pixar’s first-ever computer-animated feature film, such as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, were created by a staff of writers, directors, animators and technicians. Each had specific skills. Each used specific tools.

Technical toolkits are a set of objects, skills or resources – for example computer graphics – available to a group at any given time. Question is, what role do tools play in generating creative results?

“Creativity is in the eye of the beholder,” Dr Mannucci says. “We sometimes reject novelty, even when we’re seeking creativity. Use technology deemed too unique and people may perceive your product as too weird.”

Let’s pause here. Dr Mannucci’s paper provides the perfect example to prove that creativity is a social product; that creativity centres on how a tool, product or an idea is perceived. The animation industry didn’t immediately buy into computer graphics in the 1980s. People claimed the technique lacked vitality and the characters seemed too much like the arcade game Pac-Man compared to their hand-drawn counterparts.

The industry didn’t know then its revolutionary value. In 1983, John Lasseter, now the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, joined the computer division of Lucasfilm, which became Pixar in 1986. He was fired from Disney for promoting computer animation. Lasseter remembered people’s first reactions to computer graphics. In one interview, he said:

“When I saw these tapes, I thought, this is it! This is what Walt [Disney] was waiting for! But when I looked around, nobody at the studio at the time was even halfway interested in it. I remember the head of the studio had only one question: ‘How much is this going to cost? I'm only interested in computer animation if it saves money or saves time’.”

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?

Fast tips for tools in the workplace

 

  • Use tools when hiring. Test people’s aptitude for using particular tools during the hiring process

  • Self-diagnose your team. Diagnose the level of tool diversity in your team – aim for a balance of experts

  • Build intrateam trust. Introduce a team focal tool – something everyone can use and understand – through a shared learning experience

  • Scan the environment. Pay attention to the tools being used by teams in other functions, industries or sectors

  • Blend old with new. Infuse cutting-edge tools with more established techniques to ensure your team’s output is deemed creative, not weird.

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