A Culture of Candor

“There’s no upside in being wrong.” – Ed Catmull

“I need to sit down.” We were standing in a crowded reception hall and the keynote speaker and I were talking. He had a pained look on his face. The waitstaff was bustling around offering hors d’oeuvres to the conference attendees that had gathered after a “Ralph Breaks VR” demonstration at The Void at Downtown Disney. I spotted a collection of chairs in the corner and motioned toward them, “Let’s grab a seat there.” 

“That’s better!” It was a star-struck moment for me. I was now sitting next to one of my heroes and in an hour or so we would be going to dinner together. I first heard about Ed Catmull in college. I had admired his research in computer graphics including his pioneering work in texture mapping. Sitting there, it occurred to me that the incredible VR demonstration we just saw wouldn’t have been possible without his revolutionary work. Ed smiled, clearly relieved to be sitting down and then continued our conversation. We talked about the technology, cloud computing, PIXAR, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, mindfulness and of course, Ed’s book, Creativity, Inc.

“I hated it!” Ed’s shook his head in response to my question about his experience writing the book. It was a lot of hard work. He explained how he had enlisted 40+ reviewers to critique the manuscript and was always wanting more. Despite his elaborate efforts to get that candid feedback, he was convinced that it was still far from perfect. After publication, he said he received abundant feedback from the brilliant folks at PIXAR on all the areas he got wrong. He was motivated and even encouraged by Bob Iger, to make a second edition. I do hope that happens. The thing that impressed me the most about Ed was his insatiable desire to get things right and to enlist the help of others to do so. When I asked why he went to such measures to get that feedback, he told me, “There’s no upside in being wrong.” 

If you ever read Ed’s book, and you should, you know how much emphasis is placed on getting authentic and candid feedback. That approach has shaped the storytelling and creative content powerhouses at PIXAR, Walt Disney Animation Studios and ILM. I told Ed about my first visit to PIXAR and how it left such a huge impression on me. It wasn’t just the great campus, the comfortable open area buildings or the iconic artwork decorating the place. No, the biggest thing to me was the culture of candor. There was no power structure in the rooms. Ego was taken out. There was this incredible respect and expectation for everyone in the room to give and take honest notes. It was transformative and something I have forever sought to encourage and replicate in my own teams. Ed’s comment? “Yes, but I know we still have work to do.”

Ed is right. I have seen organizations achieve good success only to see it calcify processes or limit the ability to receive corrective feedback. As my conversation with Ed underscored, it is critical to continually seek honest feedback, remove power structures from the room and drive changes accordingly. I’m proud to say that I personally continue to see this honest feedback. At least once a week, someone on my team will raise an issue to me where we—and yes sometimes just me—are not doing the right thing, not communicating well, missing an opportunity, or doing something we shouldn’t. These are pure gold. I won’t pretend they don’t sometimes sting or hurt, but I can’t think of a single time where they didn’t result in some improvement that made us all better.

Are you willing to receive candid feedback? Are you willing to give it? As a leader, are you removing the power structure in the room so that you minimize risk and amplify candor?

I recognize that I’m over indexed on optimism, but I also believe that at any given point, something is going wrong. How do we discover that and encourage others to do the same? Getting a true and honest signal when things are going wrong is critical for our organizations if we hope to see them stay relevant, successful and thriving. Look for problems. Reward and embrace honest feedback so that you can change. As Ed would say, “There’s no upside in being wrong.” Strive for being right!

Laughter!

“There is nothing better or more cleansing in this world than laughter.” – Pat Carroll

“Hahaha!” Laughter filled the room. Pat was with her daughters and granddaughter. Tears were rolling down their cheeks like a shower, washing and refreshing with each powerful laugh. It was glorious. The smiles, the sounds, and the senses radiated and adorned Pat’s gregarious and welcoming face.

Pat began acting in local productions when she was just five years old. She was funny. Her wit and humor had gained the attention of brilliant stars like Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Danny Thomas. She loved performing live shows, stand-up comedy and doing character acting. She picked up roles on television shows like ABC’s Laverne & Shirley. She started doing voice-over work in the 1980’s for animation programs like Scooby-Doo, Galaxy High, A Goofy Movie, Pound Puppies, Garfield and even voiced the character of Granny in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. But her most beloved role would come in 1989.

“I’ve been a Disney fan since I was 5 years old,” Pat would explain. She had joined the Mickey Mouse Club and even had the ears. Her greatest dream was to perform in a Disney film. That day finally came. Disney was working on a new animated film and the directors and musical team were looking for the perfect talent. Pat auditioned six times. Her determination paid off! A year later, she got the call to be the voice of Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  She laughed! It was a dream come true and she said, “I’ve never enjoyed anything so much in my life.” Her memorable and throaty rendition of Poor Unfortunate Souls would make her one of Disney’s most beloved villains. Can you hear her singing? Can you hear her laughing? That was Pat.

Pat Carroll passed away this past weekend, July 30, 2020, at 95 years old. In a recent interview, she said, “I’ve had the most wonderful life. I’ve done everything I wanted to do and I’ve had a ball doing it.” Indeed she did. To Pat, the greatest thing in the world is laughter. The ability to laugh and make other people laugh is a superpower that is a remedy for so much that ails us. It provides cleansing. It washes our worries, treats our bruises and breathes oxygen into our journey.

Laugh! Make sure you take time to sample some humor today, and every day.

Keep Exploring

“We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

I love Disneyland!  My girls and I just concluded a three day visit at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure.  We stayed on property so we could enter the park early in the morning and enjoy the cool awakening of this magical place. Despite having fully memorized the layout over the past nearly 17 years, my girls still love to pick up a map. They are not alone. I saw many families around us walking down Main Street with their heads buried in a map including the digital version on their smartphones.  I love watching our guests, especially the little ones at the beginning of the day when they are full of anticipation and energy.  Their little arms struggle to stretch out the map in front of them as they bounce with excitement.  It’s contagious!  As they scan the map, their eyes tell a story of the wonders, adventures and discoveries that await them.  There is something powerful about exploring new possibilities, mysteries and experiences.  You can feel it too, can’t you?

We are curious creatures. It begins early as we try new things. Sights, sounds, smells, textures. They all fascinate us and pull us like a gravity to explore more. We ask, “What is this? How does it work? Why is it here? Is there more to this?”  We peer into the small, the quantum world, asking if it can be even smaller.  We gaze into the heavens and ask how far does it go and is it even bigger.  Our insatiable curiosity launches discovery, plunging to the depths of the sea and flying to the surface of other worlds.  Our eyes are hungry for discovery and our minds are thirsty for excursions. We map our menu of options and begin to explore. 

This past week, NASA’s Webb Space Telescope rocked the world with new discoveries of the universe that we have never seen before. Thousands of new galaxies, solar systems, exoplanets and star formations from 290 million light-years away were suddenly made available just inches from our eyes.  Each discovery reminds us that we are part of something even bigger.  It opens up a new map to explore.  Before us, the universe.  Where should we go next? What is this? How does it all work? Why is it here? Is there more to this?  And on we go.  We keep exploring because we are curious.  

What fascinates you? What are you exploring today? Stay curious!

Image Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Fight for the Users!

“On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.” – Kevin Flynn

Greetings programs,

“LaserDisc… Prepare to be blown away!” The clerk at the local movie rental store handed us the LaserDisc player and movie and guaranteed that it would level up our home movie experience. My brother and I unpacked the dazzling new player and quickly connected the RCA cables, powered up the audio system and hit play. Seconds later it sprung to life with colorful geometric shapes flying across the screen, taking us on a journey into a virtual realm. The dazzling images on the screen were accompanied by room filling sounds the LaserDisc pumped into the audio system. The ethereal soundtrack by Wendy Carlos transported us into this magical world of the impossible. The characters in the movie were playing video games, but not like my sister and I would play at the local arcade, they were actually in the game, inside the computer! They were “programs”, walking around, pulling power from circuit board rivers of light, recording information on their identity disks, piloting vector based light-cycles, tanks, recognizers and solar sailing ships across the grid. And like any good hero story, they fought against the oppressive evil overlord. The Master Control Program sought to enslave the world of computer programs to do it’s evil bidding to ultimately take over the human world. They were fighting for the “Users”, the human creators of this digital realm. One of those creators, a programmer named Flynn, gets transported into this digital world to join in on the fight. Welcome to the world of TRON!

I was blown away! The clerk had been right. It had inspired me and introduced me into a new world. The world of programs, computers and computer graphics. I was suddenly obsessed with this new found passion. It became an imperative for me to learn everything I could about this computer world. I managed to talk my dad into getting me a Commodore 64 so I could learn to do all these things that I had seen on the screen. Soon, I was crafting my own programs, sprites, animations and audio waveforms. I even made my own space adventure game that I published in our middle school paper, as if anyone would ever type in all that code! I was hooked. Maker clubs, hacker homebrew meetups and bulletin board systems eventually led me to join the computer science and electrical engineering departments at the University of Tulsa. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to fight for the Users, making programs and systems that made the world a better place.

TRON was released to theaters 40 years ago this past weekend. While not a blockbuster for Disney by any means, the film was groundbreaking. As with so many of Disney films, it had inspired people just like me. It even paved the way for computer-generated imagery in animated films. John Lasseter has said that without TRON, there would have been no Toy Story.

We make magic. But that magic isn’t just the compelling storytelling, the visual effects, the powerful adventures or experiences we deliver. No, the real magic is what endures those moments and begins a ripple effect on lives. People become inspired to try new things. New passions awaken. New worlds unfold. The work we do makes an impact that transcends the bottom line and propels us into the future as a species. We inform. We inspire. We improve our human experience, one story at a time.

Are you ready? It’s time to go play the game. Let’s go fight for the Users!

End of Line

Let’s Talk About Bruno

“I feel like I missed something…”  – Bruno

Let’s talk about Bruno!  Wait, what?  We don’t talk about Bruno?  For those of you who haven’t seen Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto , you are missing out.  I won’t post any spoilers, but let’s say it is definitely one of those multi-play movies, especially at the Cox home, and likely for any of you with kids at home.  I hear the soundtrack playing again right now.  

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of going to the theater to see Encanto with my entire family, including my son who moved away.  That’s something we haven’t been able to do together for several years now.  In typical Disney fashion, the story unfolds a powerful moral narrative, celebrates family decorated with spectacular magical moments, music, characters and beautiful vibrant colors.  We talked about it as a family for hours afterwards.  Great memories!

It’s a joy and a privilege to work at Disney. We make moments that last a lifetime.  But I think we can get so caught up in the day to day, log4j or sprint of the moment that we forget the incredible impact that our work, our company and our fellow cast members have on our human family.  We make magic.  The artistry, the technical innovation, the story telling, and the signature quality of our products all power our ability to deliver enchanted experiences.  Those interactions create moments and memories that last forever.  They help craft and elevate personal narratives and family stories that pass down from one generation to the next.  Like many of my fellow cast members, I often hear family and friends excitedly convey their personal or families’ first experiences with Disney, perhaps a Mickey Mouse short, a character, a movie or a trip to Disneyland.  A smile crosses their face and they close their eyes as they reminisce and cherish those wonderful moments.

Can I suggest something?  This isn’t unique to working at Disney. All of our actions, our work and our jobs impact others. Take a few minutes today and look up from your laptop screen, walk outside and gaze out into our world.  Look at the horizon of the fabulous Earthship we are riding.  Across our world is a magnificent variety of amazing people, families and connections.  Imagine the infinite experiences happening to our human family across the globe right now. The work we do matters to them.  We can make a positive difference. 

Now, let’s go make some of that magic…. Oh, and let’s talk about Bruno!


Encanto – https://movies.disney.com/encanto
© Disney, All Rights Reserved, Disney Entertainment

Enjoy the Ride

“I am confident the need for great storytelling will endure for generations to come, enhanced by new technologies that will bring these tales to life and deliver them to people around the globe in even more extraordinary ways… we will always gravitate to stories that bind us together—tales of adventure, love, friendship, and heroism, tales that enable us to escape, that comfort and inspire us, that give us hope and reason to be optimistic, tales that inform us…. and, of course, touch our hearts.” – Bob Iger, Farewell

I woke up this morning and glanced out the window to see the sun peaking over the mountain tops.  The beams of light struck the beautiful and brilliant red and golden leaves of the trees behind our house.  The backlit spectacular was incredible!  As I soaked it in, I was struck by the temporal nature of this artistry.  The occasional leaf would detach and glide to the ground.  Soon, this majestic presentation would be gone and all that would be left will be the branches.  It occurred to me, how tragic it would have been if I had missed it.  It’s a great reminder that things change.  New scenes are appearing all the time.  The lesson is, enjoy the moment, those golden nuggets of time that grace your path.  Drink them in.  Be grateful for the show that was made, just for you.

I noticed another changing of seasons today.  Disney’s former CEO and Chairman, Bob Iger’s farewell email landed in my inbox this morning.  As with the beautiful sunrise, it definitely has me nostalgic, a bit misty eyed and grateful.

A few months after I started at Disney (now sixteen and a half years ago!) a new CEO was announced, Bob Iger.  Disney was a strong brand, but creativity and storytelling had become stagnant and mundane.  Bob came in with a simple yet powerful plan.  He identified three strategic pillars that would propel Disney forward: 

  1. Creativity – We would focus on creating compelling content and telling stories that delight our guests in new and powerful ways.
  2. Technology – Second only to creativity would be the adoption and innovation of new technologies to help us create and deliver those storytelling experiences. It would help us amplify the magic, better connect with our guests and allow our guests to better connect with us.
  3. Globalization – Disney would expand into new markets around the world.  As part of that effort, our content, products and experiences would strive to reflect our diverse human family around the globe, both on screen as well as behind the scenes.

The result of Bob’s strategy was a return to epic storytelling, investments and innovation in technology and the expansion of our impact around the globe.  It resulted in us welcoming PIXAR (2006), Marvel (2009), Lucasfilm (2012) and most recently 21st Century Fox (2019) to the Disney family.  Adding those creative engines, brilliant teams and storytellers, along with new innovative technologies, amplified our ability to entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe.

Like many of my fellow cast members, I feel like I have had the privilege of sitting in the front row watching the incredible transformation Bob Iger unleashed for Disney.  And like many others, I am incredibly grateful to have been able to participate and be part of that “ride of a lifetime” story with Bob at the wheel.  

I am sad to see Bob Iger leave, but I’m incredibly optimistic about the future.  The work Bob started is growing and shaping Disney into a modern force for good. I’m convinced it will continue.  Sure, we will make missteps, try and fail at times, but our mission to deliver magic, entertainment and inspiration to the world is still key.  It is an honor to be part of an organization that is about elevating the human experience across the planet, especially when it includes unlocking the potential of technology to do so.

Have a great week!  And don’t forget… enjoy the ride.

Words Matter

“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” —Maya Angelou

How do you visualize?  If you close your eyes and think about home, family and friends, can you see them in your mind’s eye?  I remember having an in-depth conversation with Ed Catmull who confessed that he can’t visualize mental images at all.  Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images.  But that’s right, Ed Catmull, the scientist who revolutionized computer 3D graphics and co-founded Pixar, has a blind mind’s eye.  It’s a condition called aphantasia.  Ed conducted a survey of artist and production teams across the studio and discovered he was not alone.  In fact, some of the world’s best animators have aphantasia as well.  Glen Keane, who created Ariel (The Little Mermaid), also has no visual imagery.  

How we represent our world in our minds does vary, person to person.  Some of us visualize, some of us don’t.  But we all model the world around us in a way that helps us interact with each other, relate to things and make decisions.  Over time, we construct mental models that help us filter what we see, hear and feel. We build synaptic short cuts that prevent us from being overwhelmed with sensory experiences and our daily work.  We enter our mind palace, even if it can’t be seen, and think about concepts, plan projects, solve problems and even practice interactions with each other.  How do we do that?  Have you noticed?  Well, similar to you reading this today, we do that through “words”.  Now maybe those words are symbols, lists or concepts, but they are a collection of mental Lego blocks that we use to construct our mental reality. How many of those atomic units we have collected and what they are, makes up our mental vocabulary. 

When I was learning Spanish in high school, I remember the moment when I had gained enough understanding of the language to begin creating mental models in Spanish. Up till that point, I realized my mental models were all in English and I was passing all of those models through a “translation function” in my mind instead of thinking natively in Spanish.  “Gran mesa roja” became atomic in my representation of a big red table. I never achieved full model (immersive thinking in Spanish) but it gave me the insight into how we think.  Words and patterns of words are the building blocks of how we see and interact with the world around us.

Words matter.  Because words make up our perception of the world, the words we use affect us and those around us.  How we think, evaluate and relate with things is shaped by our words.  Sometimes the words and phrases that we collect and use to build mental models can be harmful.  For example, technological phrases like “blacklist” and “whitelist” are often used to denote things that should be denied or allowed.  While the connotation of “whitelist” is generally positive, something that you want included and accepted, the inference of “blacklist” is predominately negative, something that should be shunned, blocked or denied.  The general concepts make sense, but the words used can subconsciously create a mental association that anything “black” is bad, negative, a threat or an object that should be denied or avoided.  Tragically, this can shape our model such that a “black person” is unintentionally connected with the same connotation.  This is the danger.  Words shape our reality and words can project unintended meaning or reality onto others just by simple association.

I’m proud to say that as part of our inclusive efforts, Disney technology leadership is taking on this issue so that we can level up.  Technical words and phrases that are culturally insensitive or can threaten our inclusive efforts will be replaced with more inclusive terms.  In many cases, these are actually better descriptors for the intended concepts anyway.  Using phrases like “allow-list” or “deny-list” not only encapsulates the concept but describes it as well.  Now, to be fair, I know this isn’t an easy transition.  A lot of these words are deeply ingrained in the industry and our mental models.  But it is the right thing to do.  We don’t want unintended association to negatively impact us or any of our fellow team members.  Everyone is a welcome member of our human family and we are willing to reshape our language and mental models to help enforce that love for each other.

Join me in helping raise awareness on this issue.  Call me out if I accidentally use words that are non-inclusive.  To reshape tomorrow, we need to challenge each other, our teams, our vendors and ourselves to use this more inclusive language.  If you have any ideas that might help, please let me know.  We can create a better more inclusive world.  Sometimes it is as easy as changing one word at a time.

Pursue Your Dreams

“Even though I worked hard at times, it was always magical. I have to confess I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the down times I enjoyed, because we were creating something that would make people smile and lift their hearts. You can’t think of a better job than that.” – Floyd Norman

A tall skinny young man passed through the gates of the Walt Disney Studios.  He was on his way to meet Ken Seiling in the Personnel Department.  As he looked around the campus, he must have thought back to his childhood.  He had been so inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and animated features.  He loved drawing.  He often found canvases to adorn with his art.  That included, much to his parent’s dismay, even the walls of his house as a young child.  Growing up he had dreamed of being part of Walt Disney’s magic factory.  His dream motivated him to reach out to Disney and was eventually connected with Ken.  Ken agreed to meet with him after he graduated from High School.  Today was that day.

His dream was happening before his eyes.  He was inside the Disney creative factory speaking with Ken.  Ken offered him a job in Traffic.  But understanding the young man’s passion he quickly added, the wise choice would be going back to school.  “Go back to school,” may have been disappointing to hear.  It would have been tempting to take the easier path and just settle for the Traffic job.  However, that is not what happened.  The young man took the advice and went back to school.  Three years later in February 1956, he, along with other starry-eyed youngsters reported to work at 500 South Buena Vista Avenue to start their careers in the cartoon business.  He later reflected, “like Alice, we had entered Wonderland.” 

That young man was none other than Floyd Norman who went on to become a Disney Legend, spending over 60 years in animation. He is credited on many familiar titles including Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.

Like Floyd, we all have dreams. But how do we act on them?  Do we settle or do we keep pursuing?  Hopefully, like me, you are inspired by Floyd’s story to keep running after your dreams, don’t be afraid to reach out and try.  But also, don’t be afraid to pivot, learn and try again.  We may not all become Disney Legends like Floyd, but we can all run after our dreams and make a difference.  It begins with us.  Keep trying, keep the faith.

PS – Check out Floyd’s story in this great documentary on his life: Floyd Norman: An Animated Life

Floyd Norman
Floyd Norman

Creativity, Inc.

creativity-incCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Hardcover

by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

 

Disney War

Author, James B. Stewart, provides a chronological account of the Walt Disney Company during the Eisner 20-year tenure.  This book of nearly 600 pages dives in to the details of the events, players, tragedies and successes that surrounded the on-boarding of Michael Eisner, his career as Chairman and CEO, and the drama surrounding his departure. 

The book is divided into three sections: The Wonderful World of Disney, The Disenchanted Kingdom, and Disney War.