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How 'Monsters, Inc.' Met Priority Goals

Paul Sakuma/AP

Agency chief operating officers are required to conduct quarterly progress reviews on priority goals. Sometimes called “PerformanceStat” meetings, they can be effective problem-solving sessions or terrifying blame games.

So, how do you make PerformanceStat meetings effective? OMB says they should be constructive and focus on learning. Observers such as Harry Hatry at the Urban Institute say leaders need to be “hands on” and actively engaged to convey the importance of the sessions.

But just how does a leader do this? Interestingly, the answer may come from Pixar—the movie animation company with 14 box office hits in a row. If the creators can build success from toys, cars, rats, bugs and monsters, then maybe their leadership secrets can help federal agencies with more mundane issues, such as reducing poverty and climate change.

The president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, writes in Fast Company that the secret is “candor.” He says: “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms. Our decision-making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively.”

The leader’s job is to put mechanisms in place that “explicitly say [candor] is valuable,” Catmull says. At Pixar, this mechanism is branded as the Braintrust. “It is our primary delivery system for straight talk,” he says, adding that he sees his role as making sure the commitment to candor in these meetings is protected. “This part of our job is never done, because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor.”

Catmull’s description of the Pixar Braintrust reflects many of the organizational and process elements of agency PerformanceStat meetings. The Braintrust meets every few months. It puts smart, passionate people in a room together and charges them with identifying and solving problems. It comprises 15 to 20 people from different backgrounds in the organization. After the meeting, someone distills the key observations into a digestible takeaway.

Why does Catmull hold these meetings when he is already so successful? “Because early on, all of our movies sucked,” he says bluntly. “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.” The Braintrust gives Catmull and his leadership team perspective.

The Pixar Braintrust differs in two ways from other feedback mechanisms—and these seem to reflect the ways most agency PerformanceStat sessions are organized.

First, the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling (after all, they are making movies). The corollary in a government setting would be to put respected peers in the room.

Second, the Braintrust has no authority. After a Braintrust meeting, Catmull or the movie director is left to figure out how to address the feedback. “Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways that I believe are essential,” he says. Catmull notes the role of the group is to help surface the root causes of problems, not demand a specific remedy. Again, this reflects how most agency PerformanceStat meetings are conducted. The agency head or the chief operating officer makes the final decision, not the meeting participants.

But Catmull says candor alone is not the answer. “Candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and will, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work,” he says.

“Believe me,” he says, “you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.”

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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