book club

The books that saved our digital agency: Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull

  • McCracken
  • ON
  • November 15, 2018

Welcome to the BBC Book Club! Every year, the whole team reads a few books together and applies the lessons learned to ourselves — both in our work as digital marketers and in our personal lives.

As a creative digital marketing agency, it comes as no surprise that we’re pretty into Pixar. Who isn’t? Their animations are breathtaking, their characters are touching and their stories are important.

But our love and admiration for Pixar aren’t limited to the screen. In 2014 Ed Catmull (legendary Pixar co-founder) published Creativity, Inc. — a book not just about the company’s humble beginnings, but also about the most valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.

Thanks to his decades of experience straddling the lines between science, art and business, he’s basically written a loose blueprint for running any kind of creative enterprise.

Reading Ed Catmull’s book was not only affirming for us as a group of creative individuals, but also challenging in all the right ways.

Here are some of the most helpful lessons we took from Creativity, Inc. — ones we hope will benefit your agency as much as they have ours.

1) “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”

This is one of the truest adages we’ve learned over the past few years.

As we’ve said before, trust and constructive conflict are two functions necessary to the success of any company. Without them you have a stagnant company at best, and an extremely toxic one at worst.

So the first challenge here for any agency is creating an environment where employees trust management and each other. It’s no small feat, and one that must be championed (and publicly followed through on) by company leadership.

As a digital agency, our lives and work move very quickly. Things are changing all the time (clients, employees, technology, trends). And mistakes will happen, frequently.

But lucky for you, you have an indispensable resource: Your team. They are full of excellent ideas, whether they know it yet or not. Take advantage of it.

There is a related message in this lesson: It’s not enough to just be open to ideas from every level on the totem pole. You have to seek them out. You have to “engage the collective brainpower of the people you work with.” To Catmull, this is actually a key piece of the job of a manager.

At Pixar, they use a number of techniques every day to constantly push each other to share ideas.

  • They hold Braintrust meetings to dissect films in the making, enabling everyone to give and receive in-depth feedback.
  • They use postmortems to push themselves to discover all “the ways in which they aren’t exceptional.”
  • And, famously, they use “Notes Day” as a supercharged version of these techniques — one day every year where everyone’s job is simply to connect and give as much input as possible on the company challenges that interest them moth.

These techniques are applicable to digital marketing agencies as well.

For example: At Brain Bytes, we regularly hold “Fight Club” meetings to dissect processes and products in the making, and get everyone’s input on them.

Management is typically required to attend these meetings, but all employees interested in the subject matter are strongly encouraged to join (and contribute).

These meetings not only reinforce trust and conflict, they also ensure collective buy-in on big decisions since everyone can participate in the decision-making process.

As an agency, “mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what’s real” are your best friend. Don’t ever shy away from the challenge of uncovering (and accepting) opportunities to be better.

2) “The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal.”

Striving for perfection can be seen as an admirable goal. There have certainly been many extremely successful people in our world seemingly powered by the desire for perfect, smooth sailing.

In my opinion, these people either aren’t sharing the full story, or they are insanely lucky. Maybe a little of both.

A perfection-obsessed mentality is a dangerous one, especially for a digital marketing agency.

Why? Because the world of digital marketing changes too often and too quickly to get it right all the time.

Look at the facts:

  • You have a ton of clients, all with different needs, preferences and quirks.
  • You have even more employees, with different strengths, weaknesses and personalities.
  • You might dabble in a wide variety of services ranging from data-driven strategy and complicated technical implementations, to the generation of “viral” ideas and big picture creative concepts.
  • Your industry is constantly changing, whether that’s consumer habits, Google algorithms, or brand new technologies and offerings.
  • Many people on the client-side often struggle to grasp the central tenants of digital marketing, so not only is your value constantly in question, but your timelines probably are too.
  • You’re human, and so are your employees.

There is absolutely no chance that your agency is going to be perfect all the time, or even most of the time. Stop worrying about it.

“Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” And in digital marketing, you are constantly doing something new.

If your agency is too focused on being perfect all the time, then you won’t be ready to try new things and take risks. And you might miss out altogether on the valuable process of “figuring it out” — of dissecting mistakes and developing insightful conclusions and lessons from them.

The trick is to learn how to be decisive and fail as quickly as possible. In Creativity Inc., Catmull quotes Pixar director Andrew Stanton on this topic: “In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack… the right course of action is to hurry up and choose.”

This is as true for making movies as it is for delivering excellent marketing services: The trick to making your digital agency into an effective creative organization is to be decisive, try new things, and welcome failure as part of the process.

3) “The first conclusions we draw from our successes and failures are typically wrong.”

Every single day, the world experiences a seemingly infinite number of something Catmull calls “two-inch events.”

This term refers to a story from his childhood in which a traffic accident put his whole family within two inches of driving off a cliff — which, of course, would have prevented the creation of Pixar and all the accomplishments that came with it.

Catmull’s point is that events like this are happening constantly, and it’s impossible to know all of them.

So when someone looks back on Pixar’s story, it’s easy to think that their success was “inevitable” given the traits of their founders.

Catmull disagrees. To him, Pixar succeeded only because of an infinite number of two-inch events that went their way.

The same can be said for any experience we look back on — Maybe your agency is taking off. Maybe you win a huge account. Maybe you create a viral masterpiece of a campaign that gets picked up by Adweek.

Why did you succeed? To process this question, your brain will try to to create patterns and meaning out of selective memories.

But our brains don’t have all the facts.

The Pixar team learned this firsthand from a neuroscientist during the creation of Inside Out. They were surprised to learn that only about 40 percent of what we think we “see” comes in through our eyes.

The rest is made up — From memory or patterns recognized from past experiences.

So our hindsight — which we typically value so highly — is actually distorted.

So what’s the point? “Because we think we see what happened clearly… we often aren’t open to knowing more.”

Catmull’s aiming to convince us of a few things here.

To start, he’s advocating for creative leaders to be open-minded and humble.

Yes, maybe your agency’s founders are incredible people. But, no, they are not alone responsible for the agency’s success. To think so would be to close yourselves off to the option that there is more to learn about why and how you got where you are today.

Similarly, Catmull is urging us to honor the viewpoints of other people.

We only know (or think we know) the things we’ve seen or experienced in our own lives.

“Most of us walk around thinking that our view is best — probably because it is the only one we really know.”

To prepare a digital agency to grow and change with the times, we have to be as open-minded as possible. We have to be ready to try to see the world through the lenses of other people — whether that’s clients, prospects or other team members.

Finally, Catmull is pushing us to never stop questioning what we think we know.

Our brains use mental models to try to make sense of the world, both the 40 percent we see and the 60 percent we don’t.

These models are kind of like the tools that meteorologists use to develop weather forecasts. But as we all know: “Sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out.”

“The tool is not reality. The key is knowing the difference.”

Think you know why your last campaign succeeded? Or (because it goes for losses as well as wins) why that big client left you?

Check again. Don’t deal in absolutes. And embrace the unknown.

Create a feedback loop with your clients to figure out what they’re really feeling about your performance. And create another loop with your employees to help uncover hidden problems or opportunities.

It’s the job of any creative leader to constantly be uncovering any challenges that threaten the organization’s creation of excellent products, whatever they are.

Recognizing that you don’t know everything doesn’t necessarily make the process easier. But your team can use research and self-assessment as a guide as you confront the unknown, both in your life as a digital marketer and outside it.

Do you love Creativity, Inc. and/or want to learn more about it?

Or are you looking for an agency who embodies the values of Catmull and the Pixar team?

Brain Bytes Creative is an Atlanta-based digital marketing agency with an obsession for self-improvement. We love to learn and challenge ourselves. And we’d love to help you too.

book club

The books that saved our digital agency: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

  • McCracken
  • ON
  • November 14, 2018

Welcome to the BBC Book Club! Every year, the whole team reads a few books together and applies the lessons learned to ourselves — both in our work as digital marketers and in our personal lives.

A while back, we found ourselves at an impasse: Our small digital marketing agency was growing. More and more work was coming in all the time. But many of our processes and standards were not optimized, and therefore not ready to scale.

We’d done well so far, but if we couldn’t get the team on the same page ASAP to start having real, open discussions about what we could do better… Our luck was going to run out.

So, in true Brain Bytes fashion, we decided to do a little research. That’s how we stumbled upon the timeless leadership fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. It’s a short read, and a few of us quickly devoured it. Its effect was instantaneous.

The book gave us a new language with which to discuss our challenges, and a new framework with which to organize and process them. Within a few months, the majority of our team had read it. We were soon turning our processes and standards on their heads, and building ourselves into a new, better agency.

Now, it’s a permanent tool in our collection. In fact, we ask all new team members to read it when they join us. If this one little book could help our agency move from plateau to never-ending progress, we bet it could help you too.

Here are some of the BBC team’s most important takeaways from The Five Dysfunctions.

1) Management needs to prove they’re not full of shit.

Would you tell your boss they messed something up? Would you tell your boss’s boss that the process they invented is flawed? Would you tell the owner and founder of the company where you work that they’re not doing a good enough job? At BBC, the answer is yes.

The first of The Five Dysfunctions is absence of trust. This means that team members — from the executive suite all the way down to the humble intern — don’t feel they can be genuinely open with each other. The fix sounds straightforward enough: Encourage people to be honest and forthright about what’s on their mind.

But in lack of trust, as in most work culture challenges, the fish stinks from the head. It’s one thing to push your employees to be trusting and open. But if a company had never actually proved itself as a “safe space,” then who in their right mind would feel ready to be open about mistakes, inefficiencies or other issues?

Want to push employees to truly be open and trusting? Management’s got to prove that they mean what they say first. Managers and executives should set the standard:

They should deliver feedback to each other, and show what it means to deliver and take it well. They should push themselves to be open with the whole team about their own mistakes and weaknesses. And they should do it all publicly.

At BBC, this process started with a round of feedback from everyone, to everyone — including the owners and founders of the company. Ever since then, our department heads have worked every day to effectively communicate feedback to each other and to the owners.

It sets an example for employees. It shows even the newest recruit, whether they’re fresh out of college or have a decade of experience, that we mean what we say: At BBC, we trust each other.

And we recognize that sometimes trust is really hard work. In fact, we’ve said before that to become a feedback-persistent company may require a significant shift in your organization’s culture. But in addition to making your company a better place to work, it can also save you from getting fired by clients, making it very much worth the effort.

At an agency, you don’t have time to not know the facts. If your employees are too nervous to speak up when they know something isn’t right, you’ve just made your own job 100 times more difficult. If your agency doesn’t promote trust at every level, you’ll never know how many opportunities you’ve missed to improve and prosper.

2) Learn the difference between facts and drama.

Digging into a challenge and coming up with clear insights is hard enough. Try doing it when everyone is walking on eggshells to avoid hurting each other’s feelings. Spoiler: It takes forever and you go nowhere.

Thus, Lencioni’s second dysfunction: Fear of conflict.

A lot of people are socialized to have an aversion to conflict, no matter what that conflict looks like. This is especially true in a world where people’s perception of you at work can affect your self-image and your career prospects:

No one wants to come off as insensitive or overly aggressive. No one wants to throw anyone else under the bus, or be called out for mistakes they made. And no one wants to be known as that coworker who shoots down people’s ideas.

This can be especially true for women. “Will they take my input seriously, or just think I’m being bitchy?🙄 (Hint: Lean In also saved our agency. A blog about that experience coming soon!)

But what these people fail to realize is the difference between destructive conflict and constructive conflict. The former is based on emotions, and is dangerous. Destructive conflict is just drama between egos. It’s not focused on solutions or logic. It’s a waste of time.

But constructive conflict is merely ideological debate based on facts, and it’s absolutely critical to the success of your (or any) business. It’s not drama. It’s not an affront to someone’s identity.

But it will sometimes require “uncomfy” conversations where people will need to be open about mistakes and weaknesses, both their own and their team members’. And it’ll be worth it. In the end, it’ll enable you to separate symptoms from core problems, and to identify solutions. And all of this will happen in record time.

To get there, people have to realize that conflict itself is not inherently a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing.

In fact, if your team always agrees on everything, someone’s lying. Maybe all of them. And if your team isn’t being honest with each other, you’re wasting time.

Want to move fast and make things better? Focus on facts. Did someone mess something up? Yes? Fix the mistake, improve the process, move on. Does everyone agree on this new proposal? No? Identify the issue, fix it, move on. It all sounds simple, but it can’t be done unless everyone is ready to separate facts from emotions.

3) Prepare yourself to lose employees, maybe even gifted ones.

If team members don’t trust each other, they won’t be open with each other about fears, weaknesses and mistakes. If they can’t be open with each other, or they genuinely don’t care enough about their job, then they won’t engage in constructive conflict, which is critical to ensuring your agency is constantly improving.

And here’s where we find the third dysfunction: Lack of commitment.

If team members don’t engage in debate, they will never be able to fully commit to the outcomes of those debates. (And you will never stop hearing “I knew that wouldn’t work” in back-channel communications, from now until the end of time.)

The problem? Some people just don’t get it, or don’t want to. Maybe the job doesn’t pay enough, or it’s not really what they’re interested in, or they just haven’t realized yet that learning to live without ego is an extremely freeing and rewarding pursuit. Their egos would rather hold onto their dysfunction.

Whatever the reason, they’re not willing to put in the hard work to make a change. And that’s okay. Some people take more time to get there.

So guess what? You’re going to lose those people. And you’re going to be just fine.

The beauty of pushing through a major workplace culture shift is that team members not ready to join in will inevitably self-select the hell out of there.

The whole thing will feel like bullshit to them. They might start making “Kumbaya” jokes. They’ll characterize the movement as “Here we go again.” And they won’t speak up in debates. They won’t try to help avoid problems before you get to them.

And this is not to say that these unwilling team members are doing this on purpose. Sometimes they’re not. They might really think they know better. Either way, they’re probably not the right fit for your team.

It’s easy for uncommitted employees to ruin the magic. Don’t let them. Tune them out, let them number their own days. Encourage them to join in as much as it feels worth it. Try to believe that maybe they’ll come around eventually. But make a backup plan for if they dip.

Because a lot of them will dip. And later on, you will be so happy they did — because you’ll be better for it, and so will they. Hopefully. Everyone deserves to find a team and a pursuit that’s right for them. Your agency doesn’t have to be that for everyone.

4) Check your egos at the door.

If employees don’t trust each other and don’t engage in constructive conflict, they can’t commit to decisions — and the rest of the team therefore can’t hold them accountable.

So here’s dysfunction number four: Avoidance of accountability.

This is a critical step for your agency: Trust is steadily building, people are starting to get used to real debate and commitment. And then someone drops a ball. And everyone is feeling sensitive about it.

How do you hold each other accountable for mistakes while maintaining trust? Much like in #2, you rely on facts. And you learn to ignore ego, both yours and theirs.

Your ego will be afraid to deliver feedback for fear of what that person might think of you, or how they might react. Or maybe your ego will relish the opportunity to tell someone else they messed up. And their ego will want to be defensive and reject the feedback, instead of being grateful for it and open to it.

Ego and the human mind’s tendency for mental dysfunction is the biggest thing holding your agency back. It certainly was for us.

If you’re worried that other people will think you’re insensitive for pointing out an opportunity for optimization, that’s your ego. If you look forward to telling someone they were wrong about something, that’s your ego. If you find yourself feeling even a little defensive when someone suggests you could have done something better, that’s your ego.

And it’s all a huge waste of time.

Building trust means trusting that everyone just wants to be happy and do good work — that we are all powered by the same good intention. That means if someone comes to you to point out a weakness, you have to make yourself open to it.

Imagine how much time you waste being closed off to opportunities just because your ego can’t stand the thought of being imperfect. It would rather waste time focusing on how someone’s well-intended feedback is somehow a grave injustice to your character. What a boring, predictable timesuck.

You’re all humans. Not a single one of you is perfect. Get over it.

Agency life moves quickly and requires you to deal with a slew of characters, from employees to clients. Mistakes happen all the time. If your team can’t exchange feedback quickly (internally and with clients, vendors, and partnering agencies), you won’t last.

But if you can learn to identify and remove ego from your process, you’ll start improving quickly and you’ll never stop.

5) Be an open book with your employees.

Relying on all the functions before it — trust, conflict, commitment and accountability — is the fifth and final one: Focus on shared objectives.

It’s the ultimate test for your team: Can we trust each other enough to engage in debate about what goal we should pick? Can we rely on facts instead of emotion? Can we get everyone to participate in the debate? After picking something, are we holding each other accountable for it?

But in order to help employees navigate this already challenging conversation,company owners and executives must be as open as possible about the company’s future.

Otherwise, you’re expecting the team to develop critical strategy with insufficient facts. You wouldn’t do that for a client; don’t do it for your own agency.

Planning to grow your agency into an international empire? Or just to totally dominate your current region? Maybe you’d like to specialize and focus on fewer offerings, or expand and offer even more.

Whatever your vision is, let your team in on it. Trust that the employees who are down with your vision will be ready to push towards it. The more facts and direction you can share, the faster they can help make it happen.

Do you love The Five Dysfunctions and/or want to learn more about it?

Or are you looking for an agency who embodies the values in Lencioni’s book?

Brain Bytes Creative is an Atlanta-based digital marketing agency with an obsession for self-improvement. We love to learn and challenge ourselves. And we’d love to help you too.