Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Candor and trust

Catmull uses the term candor in his book Creativity, Inc., because honesty is overloaded with moral overtones. It means forthrightness, frankness, and also indicates a lack of reserve. Of course reserve is sometimes needed, but we want to create a space where complete candor is invited, even if it means scrapping difficult work and starting over. [p. 86] Catmull discusses measures he put into place to institutionalize candor, by explicitly asking for it in some processes. He goes on to discuss the Braintrust which Pixar relies on to push us towards excellence and to root out mediocrity....[It] is our primary delivery system for straight talk.... Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. [86-7] Does this sound at all familiar?

Naturally the focus is on constructive feedback. The members of such a group must not only trust one another, but see each other as peers. Catmull observes that it is difficult to be candid if you are thinking about not looking like an idiot! [89] He also says that this is crucial in Pixar because, in the beginning, all of our movies suck. [90] I'm not sure this is true with KDE software, but maybe it is. Not until the code is exposed to others, to testing, to accessibility teams, HIG, designers--can it begin to not suck.

I think that we do some of this process in our sprints, on the lists, maybe in IRC and on Reviewboard, but perhaps we can be even more explicit in our calls for review and testing. The key of course is to criticize the product or the process, not the person writing the code or documentation. And on the other side, it can be very difficult to accept criticism of your work even when you trust and admire those giving you that criticism. It is something we must continually learn, in my experience.

Catmull says,
People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process....How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? ...The process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor. [91] We try to create an environment where people want to hear one another's notes [feedback] even where those notes are challenging, and where everyone has a vested interest in one another's success.[92]
Let me repeat that, because to me, that is the key of a working, creative community: "where everyone has a vested interest in one another's success." I think we in KDE feel that but perhaps do not always live it. So let us ask one another for feedback, criticism, and strive to pay attention to it, and evaluate criticism dispassionately. I think we have missed this bit some times in the past in KDE, and it has come back to bite us. We need to get better.

Catmull makes the point that the Braintrust has no authority, and says this is crucial:
the director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. .... It is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback....While problems in a movie are fairly easy to identify, the sources of these problems are often extraordinarily difficult to assess.[93]
He continues,
We do not want the Braintrust to solve a director's problem because we believe that...our solution won't be as good....We believe that ideas....only become great when they are challenged and tested.[93]
 More than once, he discusses instances where big problems led to Pixar's greatest successes, because grappling with these problems brought out their greatest creativity. While problems ... are fairly easy to identify, the sources of these problems are often extraordinarily difficult to assess.[93] How familiar does this sound to us working in software!? So, at Pixar,
the Braintrust's notes ...are intended to bring the true causes of the problems to the surface--not to demand a specific remedy. 
Moreover, we don't want the Braintrust to solve a director's problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won't be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with. We believe that ideas--and thus films--only become great when they are challenged and tested.[93]
I've seen that often this last bit is a sticking point. People are willing to criticize a piece of code, or even the design, but want their own solution instead. Naturally, this way of working encounters pushback.

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love [99] is how Catmull sums up Braintrust meetings. Sound familiar? I've just come from Akademy, which I can sum up the same way. Let's keep doing this in all our meetings, whether they take place in IRC, on the lists, or face to face. Let's remember to not hold back; when we see a problem, have the courage to raise the issue. We can handle problems, and facing them is the only way to solve them, and get better.