The fuzzy early stages of any idea that offers the potential to create new value involves more art than science and is very difficult to achieve in business. Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc. sheds light on these early stages and provides incredible insight into how to lead a development organization’s fuzzy front end in the context of the lean engineering framework.
The fuzzy front end starts with the identification of an unmet customer need and ends with convergence on the optimum solution that a firm can repeatedly produce and sell profitably in new or competitive markets. Ideas that lead to market-creating innovation are of immense strategic importance in today’s competitive markets. The fuzzy front end is messy, unpredictable, and highly uncertain. Start and end points are ambiguous. The process involves novelty, experimentation, complexity, creativity, and non-routine engineering work. Ed Catmull’s book provides a broad set of management tools and mindsets that every engineering leader needs to master to nurture ideas for new value creation to improve business performance in the fuzzy front end.
Protecting Ideas In The Fuzzy Front End
Catmull does a wonderful job describing the tension that exists in firms between what I call the delivery and innovation paradox. He uses the analogy of ‘The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby’ to describe how engineering leaders need to be mindful of the balance between day-to-day delivery and idea driven innovation. His point is the day-to-day delivery (The Hungry Beast) can quickly kill idea driven innovation (The Ugly Baby) because originality is fragile and the fully mature product resulting from the original idea do not just pop into the world as Catmull says ‘already striking, resonant, and meaningful’ to the market. New ideas need to be protected during the fuzzy front end to be developed and enable the convergence on the optimal solution (the best all around solution from among a variety of possible choices).
To create the right environment Catmull suggests several management actions:
- Seek Balance (Continuously) – Management needs to give continuous attention to achieving strong counter balance in the face of the strong delivery desire for efficiency and consistency of workflow by: enabling give & take from parts of the business; not allowing one function to win at the expense of the whole company by seeing balance as the collective end objective; allow continuous healthy conflict; act on situations where balance has been lost; and ‘hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions’ which permits adjustment as new information and learning comes to light.
- Constructive Feedback Through An Advisory Team (Brain Trust) – New ideas don’t develop in a vacuum but rather need a constructive feedback mechanism to evolve, improve, and be tested as they develop through the fuzzy front end. The Brain Trust at Pixar provided the constructive and iterative feedback system facilitated through candor, challenge, independent and emotionally disengaged advice, all by people who ‘have been there and done that’ free from overpowering outside agendas. Catmull emphasized that to function effectively the Brain Trust had no authority avoiding negative influence on development team dynamics.
- Trusting Culture – Management needs to continuously facilitate a culture that enables honesty and candor, accepts failure with no retribution, sees change as good, and pushes employees mindset beyond their comfort zone. Management also has to recognize that they can’t possibly have all the solutions to unforeseen problems trusting all employees to respond with solutions because they are closer to the problem and have the best information.
Engineering leaders faced with the need to continuously innovate in response to competitive pressures should read Creativity, Inc. to understand how they can manage the fuzzy front end. The book is rich with examples, methods, and advice. As Catmull observes ‘discovery means you don’t know the answer when you start’ which capture perfectly the essence of the fuzzy front end.