Want to be a good creative partner? Say ‘yes’ to ideas.

IMG_0427I’ve been reading Working Together: why great partnerships succeed (2010) by Michael Eisner (with Aaron Cohen) CEO of Disney from 1984 to 2005. Eisner explores successful business partnerships such as Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

He reflects on his own working relationship with Frank Wells which lasted until Frank’s death in a helicopter accident in 1994.

It’s this relationship that is the most interesting. It’s a pity we don’t have Frank’s perspective.

I love Michael’s description of Frank as an enthusiast:

‘….when I threw an idea out there, Frank would become the idea’s biggest cheerleader. ……..Most anything, it seemed, that I could come up with, Frank would support with double the enthusiasm. And the response wasn’t “Why do it?” but “You must do it,” and “When in doubt, go for it”.

The way Frank responded with passion to ideas ‘invigorated the whole company’.  Michael goes on to reflect on what made Frank an ideal partner – he ‘believed in me, and he believed in the ability of our team to succeed at Disney……..Unlike for so many other people in Hollywood and elsewhere, for Frank Wells, it wasn’t about getting credit for the successful idea – it was about simply succeeding……….he wasn’t interested in the spotlight’. It helped that they liked each other.

Yet Frank also needed a partner like Michael Eisner. Because it could have gone the other way – Michael could have decided that Frank was a threat or a risk, because of the strength of his personality, his connections or his enthusiasm, and have moved him out of the company. Luckily they forged a relationship based on mutual trust. Michael respected and encouraged Frank.

Disney is a creative organisation with interests in films and theme parks (and urban development if you know about the town of Celebration).  So it’s interesting to hear about the issues of working within a creative, yet profit driven, organisation.  I suspect there is a lot in common with any organisation which needs to mobilise its talent to solve problems creatively.

For creative organisations the most important thing for success is having people who can come up with the great ideas. But the next most important thing is often overlooked: having people who will enable those great ideas, and support these creative people……it’s not an easy thing to do- in every instance, it is a lot safer to say no, and it takes a special gutsy kind of leader to say yes.’

Of course there’s always the issue of chemistry in close working relationships, sometimes that works well and sometimes it doesn’t. But in areas of work which are fundamentally creative – like Disney or, I would argue, city making, places are invigorated by people who see the potential and have enthusiasm for possibilities.

It was clear that Frank didn’t just express enthusiasm and leave it at that. He immediately set to action to make it happen. So he had the ability to see something as having already succeeded, even when it was just an idea, and to throw himself into making it succeed.

Where does this take us in terms of cities and collaboration?  In my experience cities that are able to be bold and brave and do interesting things need people to generate ideas as well as people who ‘get’ the ideas and help realise their potential.  Cities need people who say ‘yes’ with enthusiasm. It’s rare in a city for a person to be able to act alone to make change, though it happens. New ideas in cities can be fragile and vulnerable.  Their survival relies on people saying yes, expressing enthusiasm and then giving it a go.

When someone loves your ideas you get energy – when you love someone else’s idea you also get energy.  It also goes the other way. When people say ‘no’ without allowing for something to be ‘played with’ or explored, they risk draining energy from the room and the organisation.

When organisations lose the ability to open themselves up to ideas, they stagnate. When cities lose the ability to have ideas and do something about them, they begin a trajectory of decline.

People who say ‘yes’ to ideas;  people who enable ideas; people who don’t need to take credit – essential elements for good partnerships, creative organisations and successful cities.

Eisner, Michael with Cohen, Aaron (2010) Working together: why great partnerships succeed Harper Business

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