Shortly after a recent production meeting, I was talking with one of our animators. He usually says a lot even when he says a little, but his brain is always working in the background. Smart, smart, smart, the guy focuses like a laser, works really hard. In short, he's good! So I was thoroughly fascinated when he said, "I'm really glad I do what I do for you instead of what you do for me. I'd much rather be a fighter pilot than the guy who's in charge of where to send the planes."
There's a reason we're a good team.
The truth is, I really love working with people who deeply care about what they do without me having to worry about them hating what they do or trying to do what I do. Sounds obvious, but as we all know work teams are not always harmonious.
He's the kind of guy who genuinely feels like he's doing his best when he can deeply dig in to a discrete assignment. As an animator, his creative life is intensely technical, even as it aims to deliver something that doesn't look technical at all. To viewers, the final result of his labor should be visually effortless, conveying whatever story or feeling it was designed to impart. Viewers doesn't care how it was made, and nor should they. But as a producer or director I most certainly do!
What I've come to appreciate, and what I love best about working with artisans of all sorts, is that inside a discrete assignment, there's no singular way to solve any specific creative problem. I turn to experts to do specific things because I can count on novel ideas to get proposed, no matter how specifically or clearly I think I'm defining the task. I also turn to experts because their expertise is what empowers their own creative contributions to be special.
Now here's the other side of the equation, and try not to flinch 'cause this could sting a little.
You may be a master producer, director, civil engineer, or flower arranger, but the moment you work with any other living person, you've got to accept that you're going to have the living, breathing influence of that other person invested in the output. Even if you give precise instructions -- "Make it powder blue, two meters long, five centimeters thick, and carved from aluminum"-- there will be inevitable surprises. Yes, you most certainly can demand a revision if work delivered doesn't fit your inner vision, and compromising on vision is generally not something you should easily accept. But you're a fool if you don't at least consider the alternative solution presented to you based on your initial assignments. If you really respect your team, you will enter in to a pas de deux with each player, individually. Even if you don't like each other personally, the pursuit of the work itself should be as if you were both trying to have an intimate conversation while walking the wrong way against street traffic on a crowded sidewalk. It should be as if you're making every effort to stay close enough through the endless oncoming distractions, internal and external, to stay on the subject, keep the conversation going, reach your destination in mental sync and understanding.
Are you nervous that I'm suggesting that everyone should have the same level of authority, that everyone is equal on a team? Far from it. The director decides the movie. The architect decides where to place the windows. But the great ones listen closely to the key grips and building engineers. One of the things I respect about the fighter pilot vs mission manager metaphor is that properly compartmentalized, both players each get a positive boost from doing their specific jobs right. They both may be able to pilot a plane, just as they both may be able to make an overall plan, but left to pursue excellence in their individual dharmas, a cohesive team becomes capable of greatness.
Here's where the strategy trips people up. When the pilot doesn't appreciate the challenges of the planner, trust erodes, and the mission suffers. Where the planner doesn't listen to the realities of flying by night, low to the ground, under fire, the planner compromises mission success overall. If you're going to work with a team--and face it: in the modern world everyone works with teams of varying size and scale--you've got to build multidirectional respect. Without it the team fall apart, or at best only achieves middling results. If you can't find a way to respect the various members of your team, you either need to find another team, or quit doing what you're doing.
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