Creativity thrives with feedback

Dead-end feedback shuts down creativity. This approach can change that.

Feedback is the fuel of personal growth and development, but it’s also a critical driver of creativity. Anyone who does creative work knows this. At the same time, giving feedback about the creative process can have a chilling effect on how ideas are conceived and expressed. Judging someone’s creative expression is a delicate act that may end up shutting ideas and creative energy down.

Creativity isn’t easy

Pixar Studios knows this challenge better than most. Over the years, it has collected more than twenty Academy Awards for hits like Toy StoryThe Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Its feature films have earned nearly $14 billion at the worldwide box office, with an average worldwide gross of $680 million per film. The memorable characters and storylines that Pixar dreams up have delighted moviegoers of all ages.

But creating full-length animated films is no small feat. A single scene lasting just four seconds requires about one hundred frames, which can take up to a week to produce. At times, the process can seem more forensic than artistic. Story artists comb through every detail of a scene, scanning for things that probably go unnoticed by viewers – the placement of a prop, perhaps, or the way a character’s eyes roll.

The margin for error is high. As production unfolds, bits and pieces of the story – from camera angles and lighting to sound effects and motion capture – get reviewed and revised by film editors, technical directors, and creative designers. All that trimming adds up: It took Pixar’s team five years to scope more than 146,000 images before bringing Toy Story 4 to the box office.

Raising the idea count up

Despite the painstaking process of creating stories on screen, Pixar has found a way to share feedback without hold ups or hang ups. They rely on a feedback approach they call “plussing.” Rather than writing off concepts completely, people are encouraged to be candid and collaborative. Instead of shutting down ideas, animators try to add on to them with suggestions for improvement.

So when the creative director for Toy Story 4 didn’t like the initial design concept for Bo Peep (it took ten design concepts to finally get the right one), he asked the story artist, “I like the way you drew Bo Peep’s bonnet. What if it curled up a bit on the edge?”

While that might seem semantic, the feedback effect is significant. “Plussing” is an active feedback system that’s built on candor, caring, and a steady openness to the hidden potential of ideas. It holds ideas up for scrutiny without the sting of rejection.

Walt Disney captured the magic of “plussing” more than 60 years ago in an interview describing the planning of Disneyland:

A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. The last picture I just finished—the one I just wrapped up a few weeks ago—it’s gone; I can’t touch it. There’s things in it I don’t like? I can’t do anything about it.


 Disney went on to say: “I wanted something live, something that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only can I add things but even the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year.”

The power of “yes and”

“Plussing” takes a page from improv comedy, in which partners keep their sketch alive by “accepting all offers” and mining for little wrinkles in each other’s ideas. The driving force behind these creative exchanges is a simple two-word refrain: Yes and.

People who operate with a “yes and” approach use their words to amplify ideas, not silence them. For improv comedians, this means searching for the just the right angle to keep ideas alive. But the magic of “yes and” thinking can be just as useful in other interactions, whether they’re taking place at work or in our homes.

Imagine what would happen in your next meeting if you tried to amplify someone else’s idea instead of just silencing it completely. Or if you patiently worked through a problem with your child by accepting his or her suggestion while still surfacing alternatives.

With just a simple tweak in our feedback, we help others think about ways to turn the corner rather than leaving them stranded at dead ends. And while this approach has worked wonders for Pixar, it can be applied as a collaborative feedback strategy to help just about anyone challenge their initial assumptions and come up with a better version than the one they had before.

Whether it’s big-screen success or small wins in our work or relationships, “plussing” can be a powerful way for us to lift up other people’s ideas and even our own relationships.

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