Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Creativity: The Importance of Postmortems

In creative endeavors, as in life, it is worth learning from—but not dwelling on—your successes and your failures.

The past few weeks have been busy in way that is unique to the beginning of the fall semester. Schedules change, routines change, the weather changes; autumn is a time of transition. Yet, the last few months of the year are also filled with tradition and annual milestones such as the first day of school, holidays and holy days that give us a feeling of familiarity. Through this dichotomy, I find that autumn is an intuitive time of year to meditate on change and progress.

With the advent of Halloween only a few weeks away, I thought I would share one of my favorite (and most morbid sounding) post-creative project evaluation techniques that we discuss in Creative Thinking & Problem Solving, the class that I teach in the Emerson College graduate Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) program.

At the beginning of every semester, I have the students read and discuss the insightful Harvard Business Review article “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” by Ed Catmull. The article is one of my favorites as it relates to understanding and appreciating the four dimensions of creativity: People, Place, Process, and Product. Through these “4 P’s of Creativity” the problem solving process and institutional architecture that powers Pixar Animation Studios' success and vision with movies such as Toy Story and Up are revealed to be tangible and consistent solutions that can be applied to ironing out the kinks in a major motion picture—or, due to their structure and simplicity—applied in order to empower your own creative process.

One of the techniques, that Pixar employs after a movie has been completed, is called a Postmortem. This is where, rather than just celebrating the launch of a movie and sweeping several years of stress, trial, and triumph under the rug, the company rounds up the team to reflect on the process and data and create a record of learned experiences for future projects. As Ed Catmull notes, “…although people learn from the postmortems, they don’t like to do them.” To be relevant to end of the project, and the point in the process where usually people want to move on, a Postmortem is a balance of both positive and negatives. At Pixar, the team lists the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things they would not do regarding the project. This is combined with the data from the project to create a final and factual big picture of lessons learned.

While I am a creative, I am also a project manager at heart and the idea of a Postmortem speaks to me. Creative people have a tendency to see solutions quickly, coupled with a willingness to take on new experiences, which often leads to projects that are started quickly, muddled through in the middle, and then finally finished in the dark hours of the morning, fueled by coffee and a pending deadline. I am no exception to this. Introducing the Postmortem to my endeavors, be they professional or personal, has helped me create reminders of what I can do differently to make the next project more successful, the process smoother and everything less stressful. Granted, there will always be new and unforeseen circumstances when embarking on a creative project, but understanding what worked, or should be avoided as learned from previous projects is an invaluable experience, and a great way to stimulate your own thinking process.

There are no special tools, or set-in-stone instructions for Postmortems. In fact, Pixar usually mixes up the Postmortem routine in order to make sure that they always gain new insights. On a basic level, you want to set aside time to document in your sketchbook or a master project file the five things that you would do again (or that went well) and the 5 things that you would not do again (or that went poorly) as they relate to your project or creative endeavor. From this, I usually have some mind mapping type lines that connect to ideas for avoiding or cultivating future solutions as needed. Most important: make sure to place the Postmortem somewhere that it can be referenced in the future!

Do you currently use a postmortem-like process for any of your projects, creative endeavors, or in general? Is it similar to the Pixar Postmortem? In what ways is it different? What do you personally find as the most effective way to learn from a completed project? Share your thoughts here on The Paper Compass.

To inspire your thinking, here are a few of the ways (usual and unusual) that I have found to successfully apply the Postmortem technique:

• Books: This summer, I was SO EXCITED that the long awaited volume, A Dance with Dragons, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (for those of you watching HBO it is Game of Thrones) series was released, but I was also lamenting that after six years, I could not remember what characters had been left where and in what peril. In the case that it is six more years until the next book comes out, I wrote a “postmortem” cheat sheet when I finished the book and tucked it into the back cover of the last volume.

• Holidays: Every year, I do a short Postmortem the first week of January, which evaluates the triumphs and trials of Christmas. Not only am I reminded what gifts were a success (or forgotten in the back of the closet), I also always have ready the travel information (phone numbers, hotels, etc.) on hand for the following year—which makes the holiday travel (slightly) less stressful.

• Teaching: At the end of every semester I do a Postmortem on the class and what materials were successful or not successful. In the spirit of Pixar’s data collection, I review my notes from each class and determine what exercises worked or failed, and what I can introduce to improve them. Sometimes, if a particular class did not go as I was anticipating, I will enact an Immediate Postmortem in order to get things back on track or customize the material and timing to the different learning habits of the students in that semester.

• Parties: Postmortums and parties go hand in hand. This is how the following year I remember to use the crock pot, buy plastic bowls that are heat resistant, and have a good idea of how many bottles of red and white wine will be needed, and how many will be brought. Better party, much less stress. Thanks Postmortem!

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