Is An IT Manager Really An Artist?

by drjim on January 28, 2009

IT Leaders Are In Charge Of A Bunch Of Artists - Can We Get Them To Create Great Art?

IT Leaders Are In Charge Of A Bunch Of Artists – Can We Get Them To Create Great Art?

Here’s an interesting question that I like to whip out every so often and run through my mind: is IT a science or an art? For that matter, are we all engineers or are we really artists? If you think about it, our jobs consist of taking basic elements (colors) combining them (painting) and creating networks, servers, and applications (works of art). Is one among us the next IT Michelangelo?

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar and he is currently the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios (they merged just awhile ago). He wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he discussed how Pixar deals with the mix of art and technology that they use to create their films. His thoughts hold some interesting points for us IT Leaders.

One of the first points that Catamull makes is that Disney and Pixar are not just about great artists (Walt Disney being one of them). Rather, what makes them stand out is that they have learned to take technology and bend it in such a way as to help their artists do more. Sure seems like what an IT department is supposed to be doing!

At Pixar they have a saying “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology”. No matter what market your business operates in, this saying should apply to you also.

At Pixar they have developed several principles that they use to capture this saying and implement it in how they do work. Because every team in the department is not created equal, Pixar has implemented the following principles to guide their teams:

  1. Communication Is Key And Unrestricted: In order to ensure that silos of information don’t develop, they have separated the decision making hierarchy from the communications hierarchy. There needs to be no such thing as going through “proper channels” to get information. This means that Leaders have to get comfortable with the fact that they won’t know everything and others may know more than they do.
  2. New Ideas Must Be Safe: Nothing can kill innovation like an environment in which new ideas are laughed at or shot down. Everyone needs to get two-sided feedback: tell them what you liked and tell them what you didn’t like.
  3. Good Ideas Start In School: Oh the arrogance of those of us who have been out of school for many years. We forget where the next generation of workers will come from and where new ideas often spring from. We need to encourage our workers to publish their results, challenges, and solutions. Yes, you may end up giving away some competitive advantage but you’ll get so much more back in reader feedback and attracting new talent that it will all be worth it.

Catmull took the time to point out a few additional things that Pixar has done to keep their workers communicating with each other:

  • The Pixar building has been designed with the cafeteria, mailboxes, meeting rooms, and bathrooms are located in a common atrium. This was done to maximize chance encounters between coworkers. It goes without saying that this is how breakthroughs and solutions just “happen”.
  • When a company is successful, the ability to create a way to systematically ward off complacency while at the same time finding ways to uncover problems are probably the two most difficult issues facing a Leader.
  • Postmortems are the key to your company’s long term success. Nobody likes to do them, but everyone learns from them. Catmull suggests changing the format of the postmortem meeting so that people don’t become complacent. He also suggests that you ask each group involved in the postmortem to create a list of the 5 things that they would do again and the 5 things that they would not do again. This creates a safer environment.

I guess at the end of the day, just like the teams at Pixar, we are all artists down deep. The tools that we use and the artwork that we create may be different from what we traditionally think of artists creating, but isn’t that what art is all about?

Do you think of yourself as an artist or as an engineer? Do you think that the most creative IT folks do the best work? Is your work environment a safe place to offer new ideas? Do you do postmortems and are they valuable? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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