On World Book Day (WBD) last year, I had great fun writing this post about George’s Marvellous Medicine and a few lessons we can take from it for business strategy.

Since then, I’ve read some great books which could have been the focus on this WBD 2019 post. The stand out one was Creativity, Inc, which may well be the greatest book ever written. Quite a claim, I know. But it’s a book that doesn’t just take you through the inner workings of Pixar, it paints a picture of how to build an organisational culture that can help transform any business. More on that below, but first, this.

Killing Dragons

As WBD is a great day for children, I thought I’d dig into this quote from GK Chesterton.

“Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”

I first came across this quote years ago on Twitter and have rolled it out in a few presentations since then. It’s brilliant.

st george slaying a dragon

Junior Jarvis, now nine and an important half, has a brilliant imagination. Often a little too brilliant, especially when coming up with excuses not to brush her teeth, but let’s focus on the positive bits of it.

In her world, dragons exist. It’s not a discussion, they do. So do unicorns. And fairies. And various other things that grumpy old sods dismiss. I love listening to her when her imagination is running wild and we play a simple story game that I think I enjoy more than she does – one of us starts a story and when we stop the other one picks up. The journey starts somewhere fairly sensible and ends up bizarre… it’s brilliant.

Child Labour

The beauty of her child mind is it’s not inhibited by the definites we know (or think we know) as adults. If I’m stuck with a problem, I often discuss it with the youth and she often helps me come up with an answer. She’s that good, I’ve even considered selling her services as an add on to clients.

I think there are two reasons why we manage to come up with an answer to my problems, both of them about simplicity.

Firstly, it forces me to boil the problem down to the basic issue. She’s a smart cookie, but not yet familiar with the issues surround EBITDA performance or the technicalities of GDPR, so when discussing problems with her, it gets stripped back. That process alone is often enough to clear my mind and start the journey to an answer.

Secondly, her view of the world is still unburdened by the worries of adulthood. Despite the recent MOMO shenanigans, most of her problems are around a boy called Oliver who trumps in class a lot and the disgusting cabbage they serve in school (plus ça change, eh?). I often say to clients the simple answer is often the right answer and what Kiera gives me is usually the simplest answer.

Her answers to some issues I had with Eximo in the early days were so brilliant, I wanted to launch an Ask Kiera series on LinkedIn, where business professionals could submit questions and Kiera would sort out their issues for them. Sadly, that idea didn’t make it beyond the planning stage – her fee was too high – but it’s still there for the future.

The Kath Test

Simplifying a problem so a child can understand it is a great way of approaching complex business issues. I’ve worked closely with consultants who cut their teeth in Proctor & Gamble and one thing that I took from them was the beauty of a one page document – the mantra was “if you can’t explain an issue on one page, you don’t understand it well enough”. I don’t believe that P&G call Kiera to run problems by her, but their commitment to the one pager is formed from the same thought process.

Bradford marketing consultant
Andi, Kiera and Kath

While shamelessly utilising my family for corporate gain, I wanted to explain The Kath Test. Kath is my long suffering mum, now into her 70s and utterly clueless with anything electronic or modern. Her cluelessness is the key to The Kath Test.

When you’re deep in a creative process, it’s easy to get caught up in an idea. Somethings just sound AMAZING and the sooner you can get out of the meeting room and get them moving the better. But what you need to remember about this creative process is that you’re sat in a room with people who are scarily similar to you.

  • Same iPhones
  • Same education
  • Same bars
  • Same Netflix
  • Same cars
  • Same campaigns
  • Same Instagram
  • Same
  • Same
  • Same

Most marketers live in a bubble. It’s a bubble that can be dangerous, unless you understand that the rest of the world doesn’t think like agency staff. They don’t like watching ads, don’t wake up thinking “what content can I consume today” and don’t subscribe to Monocle.

To get out of this bubble, I sometimes use The Kath Test. If we’re coming up with ideas and think they’re a winner, I’ll give my dear old mum a call and run through it with her. I’m fully aware she’s not the target market for most of the ideas I’m involved with developing, but The Kath Test isn’t supposed to replace customer research. It’s just a quick and easy, low fi, stress test of an idea, ensuring the basic principles make sense. In short, if Kath understands the basics of the idea, it’s worth taking it to the next stage.

A word of warning. The Kath Test isn’t the only test of an idea to see if it’s a winner. I don’t pin my hopes and client’s budget on the thumbs up from a distant septuagenarian. You should have various points in the process to feedback on ideas, taking in people’s concerns and ideas to improve the original concept.

It’s not an easy process. Too many opinions, and you end up with an awful committee-designed idea. Not enough rigour and an expensive failure could be on your hands. This is where I refer back to Creativity, Inc, and the Notes Day approach they have to improving the creative process.

Notes Day

Notes Day is a fairly established concept in the movie industry, although not everyone does it like Pixar. The team involved with a project and some senior executives are given a structured format, with everyone, regardless of rank or experience, allowed to contribute. Crucially, however, the director of the film is the one who decides what is taken on board and used to improve the film. The Founders could, if they needed to, override the director and make changes but they never did. If the book is to be believed, this happens all the time at other studios and is a source of frustration in the creative process. However, the directors at Pixar understood that the feedback was there to improve the final output, not criticise their genius.

creativity inc

This approach can work in any organisation. Rather than just have the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) come in and tell everyone what will work, how do you democratise the process? And, crucially, how can you get the people with an idea to understand that the feedback isn’t a criticism, just part of a process to improve.

The answer lies in the culture of the organisation, which has to come from the top. By setting the right conditions for people to feel open to express an opinion and to not feel threatened by the feedback from junior staff, you’re on the road to improving your outputs.

#MeToo and Pixar

Now, I understand that since the book was published, one of book’s main protagonists, John Lasseter, has stepped down after being the subject of several complaints following the rise of the #MeToo movement.

I appreciate how the behaviour of the Co-Founder and lead creative of Pixar can blow a hole in the credibility of a book that’s trying to explain how to build a great culture. Knowing very little about the incidents, I can’t comment on them. Suffice to say that I think the #MeToo movement is well overdue and if it stops creepy men abusing their power, it should be celebrated.

However, I think it would be a mistake to avoid reading the book, which is written by one of the other Founders, Ed Catmull (Steve Jobs, of Apple fame, is the third). To my knowledge (and cursory research), Catmull isn’t implicated in the #MeToo allegations. I had the pleasure of meeting the former Head of Learning from Pixar at an event in Belfast recently and she confirmed he’s one of the good guys.

If you look at the processes discussed in the book, not the people, I still think you’ll find lots of nuggets you can use, regardless of Lasseter’s appalling behaviour.

In my mind, there are two types of people in the world, people who use a bookmark and the savages who fold over the corner of a page! I’m a bookmarker, but Creativity, Inc has pencil marks, folded page corners, highlights, post-its… anything that was to hand, I grabbed to make notes about it.

The book is packed full of great ideas that can be lifted into any business, not just one the size of Pixar. And it’s relevant to all sorts of industries – anywhere you have processes – not just creative industries, although it may feel more relevant to them.

So, if GK Chesterton isn’t your thing for WBD, grab a copy of Creativity, Inc. You won’t regret it.


Featured image of St George slaying a dragon is courtesy of Wikipedia. Thank you.