Andrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.
I love to think—quietly and nonstop. My wife says I’m nuts for spending so much time in my head, and of course, she’s probably right. I’m intrigued by stories of individual artists and problem-solvers—the great minds of our era. I like the idea that one brain operating in isolation can do so much.
While this image of the solitary genius seems to be true sometimes, my recent experiences persuade me that even the brightest individuals—and especially average folks like me—benefit from the influence of groups. And very frequently in unexpected ways.
In his management memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder, Ed Catmull, describes a key group that evolved within his legendary animation studio called the “braintrust.” The braintrust is a team of creative individuals that convene at intervals to review storyboards for movies in production—from the earliest sketches to the final features we enjoy in theaters.
Catmull makes the surprising claim that every Pixar movie was “terrible” at its inception. He explains that the genius of Pixar—the recipe for their many hits—is integrating the genius of the braintrust with the genius of the individual as part of a routine product development process. Invariably the braintrust spots holes in the narrative or contributes ideas to improve the storytelling in ways that no individual could. Importantly, however, the braintrust doesn’t prescribe solutions; choosing a path forward is left to the film’s director. Pixar leverages the group dynamic for diagnostic activities and ideation but stops short of groupthink.
This lesson about the power of groups was reinforced for me during a recent workshop with one of Influencer Institute’s partner organizations. This organization operates one of the largest and most rigorously scrutinized and validated child sponsorship programs in the world. They have helped to release millions of children from poverty over the last sixty years.
On this occasion, our consulting team gathered with their leaders to design strategies to influence their many thousands of sponsors—folks who live in developed countries and who give time and resources to help children in the poorest places on earth. Although our meeting was driven by good research and excellent communication, the real secret to its success was that our partners had invited a large handful of actual sponsors to join the process. Imagine that: co-creating an initiative with the very people who will be served by it.
We had formed our own braintrust, and it paid off before we were even an hour into our meetings. By sharing their experiences and points of view, these sponsors helped unearth obstacles to implementing our partner’s strategy and provided ideas for improving it. Similarly, the diverse team assembled from within the partner organization gave the strategies breadth and depth that no individual could have created.
As a consultant and writer, I’ve seen my own work routinely and immeasurably improved by the insights of team members and colleagues. Used well, groups can be a windfall for creativity, and a bolster for motivation and accountability.
When implementing a performance management system at a thousands sized government agency I assembled a design team composed of line, staff, all abilities, ages, genders, races, ranks, and sexual orientation. They saw projects from different many perspectives and challenges and opportunities I would never had thought of. For example because of them the performance goals we typed on annual plans were printed on the appraisal page for the supervisor to rate. It included electronic helps that never would have occurred to me. Because I submitted to the wisdom of the group, they prevented me from insisting that individual development plans be a part of the appraisal system as had been my best practice experience previously. That was a good thing because having one would have made it even harder to get employees to accept the new performance management system. I put them all in for awards! The resulting performance was recognized and copied by five countries and won me the Chief Learning Officers Consortium’s Gold Business Impact Medal. Yay Teamwork!