Embracing the Unmade Future

“Everything is changing. All the time. And you can’t stop it. And your attempts to stop it actually put you in a bad place. It causes pain, but we don’t seem to learn from it. Worse than that, resisting change robs you of your beginner’s mind – your openness to the new.”

Pixar President, Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc is a fascinating story about innovation, the power of imagination and, ultimately, about how the intentional development of an organization’s culture defines and enables its success. Starting with a dream to produce the first, fully computer-generated movie ever (Toy Story), and with the considerable, imposing shadow and legacy of Steve Jobs punctuating the narrative, Catmull provides a compelling account of progressive leadership and the keys to making change happen in any organization. There is a lot of wisdom in here that can easily be applied to schools.

Three strands are particularly engaging in Catmull’s story: (1) the need to develop a culture that is human and aspires always to excellence; (2) the vital importance of collaboration and effective teams and providing them with the right environment in which to work; and (3) the need to overcome our resistance to change, in order to embrace the reality that change is inevitable and is how organizations, and the individuals within them, grow and reach their potential. It is on this latter point that Catmull provides his most insightful observations. “To keep a … culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. … with change comes the need for adaptation, for fresh thinking.”

At the heart of his story, Catmull poses the question that lies at the intersection of change management and resistance to change, the need to understand, “what is it, exactly, that people are really afraid of when they say they don’t like change?” He illustrates this question with an anecdote about how Pixar animators were originally unwilling to use computers to produce their animations and his resulting analysis of why people are reluctant to embrace change is incisive and familiar:

“People want to hang on to things that work … You figure something out, it works, so you keep doing it … and we become even more resistant to change. Moreover, it is precisely because of the inevitability of change that people fight to hold on to what they know. Unfortunately, we often have little ability to distinguish between what works and is worth hanging on to and what is holding us back and worth discarding. [It is like] Musical Chairs: We cling as long as possible to the perceived “safe” place that we already know, refusing to loosen our grip until we feel another safe place awaits.”

This can be true of all of us at various points in our lives and careers, but it would appear to be particularly pertinent to schools where developments in brain-based learning theory and technology have highlighted the need for a significant transformation in institutions, many of which, have not evolved in a generation or longer. In our schools, the key would appear to be to develop, nurture, and sustain a culture in which people are not afraid to take risks, where they do not fear failure, and where assumptions can be challenged in a supportive environment. In the school context, the most frequently articulated argument against change is that the new idea or practice is unproven or yet another fad. There can be some validity in this perspective, particularly for those educators who see one change after another coming and going before any new practice can be embedded in any meaningful way. The danger when we resist change is that we can miss opportunities and possibilities that we would otherwise never encounter. Surely learning organizations, of all places, where we profess to develop risk-takers and independent learners, should be well-equipped to step into untested waters for the sake of our students? Catmull echoes this sentiment, believing that we have an obligation “to bring new things into being”.  This, he rightly contends, requires the confidence, not to know where we are headed, but that we can figure it out together: “We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead to who-knows-where.”

The role of the leader in empowering employees to embrace change and achieve success is vital. Like Ken Robinson, Catmull believes that we must embrace “the unmade future” and can only move forward if we can create the optimal conditions in which people will flourish. It “requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing … culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.”

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. Random House, 2014.