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Small Changes, Big Results

In the latest issue of Fast Company, there is an extensive interview with Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, with some good excerpts from his forthcoming book Creativity, Inc. Although this is an excellent must-read article for innovators, the story that really grabbed my attention was actually told by editor Robert Safian in his leadership column, “Confessions of a Reformed Micromanager.” It included a story Catmull tells in his book, that did not make it into the article.

While Pixar was making The Incredibles, an internal review had some frightening feedback. As Safian tells it, “­After an early screening, director Brad Bird's colleagues gently but firmly shared that the relationship between the husband and wife wasn't working. They felt that a major rewrite was in order.”

Uh Oh

An extensive rewrite would have been extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming. Redoing the voice talent, the animation, the editing…that could be disastrous for a movie that would already cost nearly $100 million to make.

Bird had developed a product he believed deeply in, but the consumer testing was going badly. What to do? Scrap the project as a failure? Reboot with the recommended rewrite and incur all those budget overruns?

Like a good serial innovator, Bird asked the three important questions: Why? Why? And why?

Making a Change

“Bird took the criticism at face value,” relates Safian, “but not the solution. He believed in his characters, but why weren't they coming across as he intended? Bird zeroed in on one scene, an argument in which the rather large Mr. Incredible raised his voice at his waifish wife, Elastigirl. Bird realized that the visuals made the husband seem a bully, and the wife a victim. His solution: to have Elastigirl expand her body at a key moment in the scene.”

That’s it. One small animation change. No dialogue change. No extensive rewrites. No major budget overruns.

When screened again among the same group of internal colleagues who had given him the initial criticism, he was congratulated for what they perceived to be a major rewrite. That one small change was so impactful, it changed the perception of the entire movie.

The Incredibles went on to gross $632 million at the box office and win two Oscars, including Best Animated Feature Film of the Year.


So one small, but very important change, made the movie appear to have been extensively rewritten to experts in the field who had just recently seen the earlier version. That is – wait for it – incredible.

When developing a product, how many times have near misses been thrown away like lost causes? How many new products or services, for the want of one small but important change, have been tossed on the trash heap of history?

It took two things for director Brad Bird to make his change – and his ultimate product – successful.

1) The ability to accept criticism about his ugly baby. He believed deeply in his product, but didn’t allow that to blind him to problems. He listened to the feedback, and allowed it to deepen his appreciation for how his product really impacted his customer, not just how he thought it should impact his customer.

2) The ability to reject consumer solutions. The Voice of the Customer is all about understanding the customer needs and how to meet them, not about giving the customer what they say they want. Just because a consumer says that they want a particular solution, doesn’t mean that is the right solution. Bird saw beyond the surface to a more efficient, and possibly more impactful, solution.

Genuine listening for understanding with application of insight and technical incredible recipe for success.

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