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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age

The former Dean of Pixar University explains what schools must do to prepare students (and themselves) for new models in the workplace.

Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age (Transcript)

Randy Nelson: One of the things that we do at Pixar and I know some things about Pixar uhm ... is we use improv as a mechanism of helping with collaboration. And in that, two core principles of improv have always guided us. The first is, accept every offer. So if an improv, improviser says to you, "Gee it's funny. It's raining a lot in here today." You don't go "Raining in here?" You say, "Well that's why they gave us umbrellas." It's an offer. You don't know where it's gonna go. But the guarantee you have, is that if you don't accept that offer, it goes nowhere. So you've got a sure thing on one hand, dead end, or you've got a possibility on the other. And the other principle is make your partner look good. What a great thing. So you know on a team, that anything anybody says to you, you're gonna get a chance to plus that. You're gonna get a chance to have that beyond the table. And they're gonna try and make you look good, not make you look bad. At Pixar, what we mean by plussing is this. You take a piece of work. You take something that you're working on collaboratively. And when it's given to you, you don't judge it. You don't go, "Ooh this is pretty good. Here's what I'm going to do to make it better." Or, "This isn’t so good, here is how I'm gonna fix it." You say, "Here's where I'm starting. What can I do with this? How do I plus this? How do I accept the offer and make my partner look good?" So at Pixar, we want people who are good at something, not just a little good at it, really good at it. And depth is a great thing. It's in a sense, where everybody hires. It's the resume based hire. You want somebody who really knows that skill. There's a problem with that. Most of the interesting jobs out there fall into this category whether it's true or not, of being innovative jobs in innovative companies. If you're doing something that's never been done before or it's hard to imagine how you can find somebody's resume that shows that they're not only able to do it, but deep in it. NASA had this exact problem when they wanted to hire the first man to walk on the moon. Should have been a person, okay. Times are changing. So their first search was this depth based search. And what they found was there were far too many people who were deep, who were very good. They couldn’t use that as a filter and they realized what they wanted was not merely people who were successful and in fact maybe that was exactly what they couldn’t afford in their depth based search. They needed to find people who had failed and recovered. Those who had failed and hadn’t recovered were not applying. They weren’t around anymore. We're talking about test pilots for the most part. So that filters out one group.

Randy Nelson: So that ended up being the way that the astronaut core was chosen, was they were looking for people who had not simply avoided failure, but rather those who had seen failure and had figured out how to turn it into something. The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance. So in the depth based hire, we need something that allows us to look across that success in their depth to see something about their ability in terms of resiliency and adaptability to actually solve a real problem that's never been solved before. So what do we do? Well of course we look at their depth in terms of their resume. But we also try and find some parallel that's a predictor of success in that way. And what we've recognized is, mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done. If you take a young person who is the best skateboard person that you've ever seen or the best glass blower or really good playing spoons, you're going to find something about that personality if they're truly a master that has set their mind in a way that you can use in your enterprise, whether you're an educator or a business person or both. That sense of I'm gonna get to the top of that mountain, separates them from all of the other candidates almost instantly. And you know, in the high pace of what we do in school and in business, there's very little chance that someone's going to achieve mastery on the job if they didn’t get there before coming to your workplace. So you got to have it in the can, not just I wanna or I wish I or maybe I could. But I've done that. It's one of the great things about the proof of a portfolio versus the promise of a resume. That's one. Two, breadth. Oh my gosh, we certainly don't want one trick ponies. We certainly don't want narrowness that can sometimes be the thing that you get with depth. What we've gotta find, is people who are extremely broad. And the predictor there, we want somebody who is more interested than they are interesting. Yeah, anybody can have a pink Mohawk and enough piercings so that wind blows, you whistle without pursing your lips.

Randy Nelson: That's interesting and that's easy to get. Interested is tough. That's a real skill and I'm sure all of you have that sense, somebody in your life who you just always think of when you think, that's the person I want to talk to. Why? Because they're so bright? Yeah they're bright. But what they do is they amplify me. They give me what I need. I say, I've got a problem and they lean in. They don't say, "Oh yeah, I got problems too. I bet my problems are more interesting than your problems." No. They want to know what you want to know. They want to know what's bothering you. That notion of breadth also leads to point number three, communication. Depth, breadth, communication. Communication involves translation. If you are a technician and you're trying to speak to an artist, if you just emit tech, well we all know what happens, you know. There's a lot of eye-rolling and then we'll try and figure it out later, get somebody to translate that. If you know enough art as a technician to be able to do the translation at the sending in, so it doesn’t have to be translated at the receiving end, you may actually be communicating. Communication isn’t something that the emitter can measure. I can't say I'm communicating well. They turn the mike on. I think you can hear me. But you can say, I understand. So nobody can declare themselves as being articulate, but a listener can say, I think I got that. I understand what you mean. So people who are interested are much more willing to work on the communication as a destination, not as a source. And breadth, a broad range of experience in the world, is the thing that fuels that. If I've studied art, even though I am primarily a programmer, I've got an edge. I'm gonna be able much more readily, to be able to talk to the artist and understand what their issues are. And out of that naturally comes a rekindling of my interest in the things that they're passionate about, depth, breadth, communication. The most important of these four, is collaboration. People always say, yeah collaboration is a great thing. We want lots of that stuff. Well what do you mean by that? Well it's a really cooperative kind of a thing. Well what's the difference? Well it's like cooperation on steroids, that's collaboration. It's really, really. Now they've got to mean different things. Cooperation for us at Pixar is that thing that is a definition of a protocol that allows you not to get in each other's way. Think of an assembly line as the quintessential cooperative activity. The guy that puts the fender on at Station 1, has to do a good job. And the lady that puts the headlight on in Station 2, well the guy's job on Station 1 matters. But in a sense, a cooperative enterprise could in some way be done as long as you had enough time or other resources, by a single person. I put the fender on and then I walk down here and I put the headlight on. There's nothing about the way job one is done that makes the person doing job two better. They can prevent job two from being done as well as it could be done, but there's nothing in the process that's optimizing that. Collaboration has to mean something different. It can't be a synonym for cooperation. Collaboration for Pixar means amplification. The amplification you get by connecting up a bunch of human beings who are listening to each other, interested in each other, bring separate depth to the problem, bring breadth that gives them interest in the entire solution, allows them to communicate on multiple different levels, verbally, in writing, in feeling, in acting, in pictures; and in all of those ways, finding the most articulate way to get a high fidelity notion across to a broad range of people so they can each pull on the right lever. And the most amazing things about school, is that we have this untapped resource in a sense. Our students are the solution. They're also the problem. But there is an opportunity there if we can find ways of invigorating that leadership on our campuses, that some of the problems may get well on their own. And then we can focus on those things that you know are on the table, that you have to handle.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Intern:

  • Neil Tan

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Michael Sullivan
  • Tony Jensen
Since this video was published in 2008, Randy Nelson has moved on from Pixar Animation Studios to become the Head of Artistic Development and Training at DreamWorks Animation.

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