Imagine you are at work and you have a brilliant idea. You think it’s so good you go next door and run it by a colleague.
“It’ll never work,” your colleague says.
“You don’t think so?”
“It just can’t be done that way,” the colleague says. Or maybe he says “we tried that already – it didn’t work,” or “you’ll never get approval, so forget it.”
So you abandon the idea.
Sadly, communication like that happens all the time. An idea that might have grown into something great gets shot down before it even got off the ground.
Pixar Animation Studios, the California company that has now produced fourteen feature films that have won 27 Academy Awards, found a way to avoid these traps. It’s a method that helps ensure creativity is nurtured not negated.
Pixar calls the technique “plussing,” and what’s fascinating is that science backs up why it works.
‘Plussing’ – What It Is 1
In an animated film, a single scene of just four seconds requires about 100 frames. A good animator can produce that in a week, or about twenty frames a day. Animators at Pixar are usually assigned one or two scenes at a time. Each day, an animator’s draft work is fed into a central computer where other colleagues and the director can review it.
The teams of animators then meet each morning to review their previous day’s work, and critique it.
The criticism at meetings like these can be brutal, and this is where ‘plussing’ has played a game-changing role at Pixar. Rather than randomly critique a sketch or shoot down an idea, the general rule is that you may only criticize an idea if you also add a constructive suggestion. Hence the name plussing.
Imagine for example that a team of animators is now working on Toy Story 4. The team is reviewing a draft scene where Woody is the main character. Let’s say it’s an action scene. Instead of hearing feedback like, “but that’s all wrong! … Woody shouldn’t look like that here …” , the practice is to say something more like: “okay … what if you could make Woody’s expression even more (e.g. brazen) … ”.
Pixar says the practice has been built on the core principles from improvisation, which are: accept all offers (accept the idea, don’t reject it), use “yes, and …” instead of “yes, but …”, and make your partner look good.
If you follow these principles, dialogue becomes more like a structured debate that’s both serious and yet constructive. It’s not an attempt to gloss over the hard stuff. Discussions still involve challenging problems, like possibly rejecting initial ideas, but this is done always with a view to replacing them with a better solution.
A key element achieved is respectful listening, and ongoing respect for the talents and abilities of the animator.
It’s a Kind of Structured Debate, and Structured Debate Trumps Brainstorming
Plussing is different from mere brainstorming, the term often used for meetings designed to generate ideas. The goal in brainstorming is typically just to come up with new ideas, sometimes as many as possible.
Pixar’s approach is closer to a structured debate. The goal is to critically review existing work, often rigorously, and to generate new ideas that build further and create something better.
Science backs up the idea that structured debate is far superior to simply brainstorming. A study 2 led by UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth found that when a team used structured debate, it significantly outperformed a team instructed to merely ‘brainstorm.’ Nemeth concluded that “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them.” What might be even more significant is that after the teams disbanded, the team that used structured debate continued to generate further ideas. It seems that the experience of a constructive debate lingers, and people continue to come up with new ideas.
Surprisingly Similar to the Approach Used in Mediation
If you’ve ever been in or observed a formal mediation, you’ll know that the process is in fact quite structured. Most mediators today will use the method of principled negotiation, the model developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project in the 1980s.
One of the core principles is to separate the people from the problem, and thus take the focus off personal issues to avoid negativity. In plussing, the basic rule to ‘accept all offers’ is similarly away to avoid the negatives easily triggered by rejecting ideas. Creative people often can feel that a rejection of their idea is a rejection of them.
Another core principle in mediation is to spend considerable time focusing on new options. That’s very similar to the core idea in plussing – namely that you must always propose a new constructive suggestion for any idea that you criticize.
Maintains Intrinsic Motivation, which Fosters Creativity
Extensive research in psychology now shows the best way to stimulate creativity at work is to make sure people remain intrinsically motivated – that is, driven by interest, enjoyment and satisfaction in the work itself. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile has spent more than 35 years researching this connection, and found it to true for all groups of people, from children to knowledge workers to professional artists.
The technique of plussing by design helps ensure intrinsic motivation, because it offsets the criticism with a focus on creative alternatives. The science supports the idea that this has contributed immensely to the high levels of creative output at Pixar.
How Do You Create a Culture of Plussing?
The mere knowledge that plussing is a wise practice does not make it easy to achieve. Anyone who has tried to change the culture of a team or organization will know just how difficult this can be.
Nonetheless, it can be done. Two key changes are essential: (1) Language and (2) Tools that Implement the New Behaviors.
One of the best ways to change a culture is to change the language used. While it’s true that our thoughts determine our words, it’s equally true that the words we use in turn determine our thoughts. The task is to eliminate the language that destroys creativity – language like “yes, but …” or “that’ll never work …” and replace these with language that shifts the focus to adding value – language like “yes, and …” or “what if …” or “how might we do this? …”. This is how Pixar’s practice of plussing began.
(2) Tools that Implement the New Behaviors
The language alone is not enough. It must become the language everyone uses, and the only way that happens is if there’s leadership from the top.
Pixar serves as a good model. The simple yet lasting change came from implementing the method of ‘plussing’ as required process during meetings. Once that new behavior is recognized as a required behavior, it can then evolve into a standard practice in the organization. But it must be required and practiced, first and foremost, by the leaders of the organization.
- For two excellent reviews of ‘Plussing’ at Pixar, see David Berkus, “Why Fighting for Our Ideas Makes Them Better,” published on 99u: Insights on making ideas happen; and Peter Sims, Little Bets (New York: Free Press, 2011), pp. 69-75. ↩
- See Nemeth, C. J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. and Goncalo, J. A. (2004), The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 34: 365–374. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.210 ↩