The Messy Middle

(image credit : bossfight.co)

The messy middle. We’ve all been there, right? Maybe you’re there now. You know the space I mean. That place where things are in flux, everything is turned up to eleven, and you can’t seem to catch your breath. Yeah. I know that place. When we are in those moments there is nothing we’d rather do than get out of them, but afterwards, when the dust settles we realize that in the middle of all of THAT, the messy middle, we may have made some magic.

The truth is we find ourselves in the messy middle more than we’d like to admit, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t thrive and accomplish great things. A few years ago at Leadercast I had the opportunity to hear Ed Catmull, who is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, talk about how we as leaders need to make it safe to operate in the messy middle. We need to make sure the teams of people we lead realize that where they are is a safe place, and no matter what might be happening in their scope of work, we will be there for them to work alongside them to help find a solution when things don’t quite work out the way they planned. Sometimes things don’t go right and you have two choices. You can either shut down or you can pull together and figure out a solution. 

In the case of Pixar someone on the team had deleted most of the only copy of Toy Story 2…just months before it’s release. Hundreds of hours of work, and 90% of the film…gone with a keystroke. Now that is messy! But the team came together and figured out a solution, redid much of the movie, and of course we’ve all been enjoying that classic with our families for over a decade. The version that ended up in theaters and in our homes was actually much better than the original deleted version. That could only happen because no one was pointing fingers and everyone stepped up and took responsibility for the issue.

As leaders we all have had experiences that just don’t go the way we hoped they would. In his talk at Leadercast, Ed Catmull gave several suggestions and question to ask that I believe lay the foundation for how we can change the paradigm for how we operate to make us as efficient and productive as possible, while providing a safe place to screw it all up and learn from the experience.

  • Fail often, Fail early.
  • Instill trust.
  • Challenge the status quo, even when it’s working.
  • Asking the right question. It’s not “Am I a success?” or “Am I a failure?” It is “What am I learning?”
  • How can we develop more creativity in our organizations? This is the process by which problems get solved.
  • Figure out what are the management and cultural forces that block creativity and change versus trying to become more creative.
  • Face the problem of hidden issues that you can’t see.

Those are such good points. I see and talk to leaders who are afraid to fail and so they never move forward. They never accomplish anything great, because they are afraid to fail, when in fact, failing is the only way to find out what is really going to work. Fail often, fail early. Instilling trust is crucial. You lead by example, and leaders eat last. Make sure your team has what they need. Challenge the status quote even when things are going great. It’s easy to hunker down when you are facing a crisis, but what about when things are going great and everyone loves you? Not so easy is it? Good leaders know how to handle problems. Great leaders know how to handle success and make the results even better. 

What are the true cultural roadblocks in your organization that are keeping you from succeeding? What are the issues that are keeping you from being creative and nimble in addressing the issues your business is facing? Until you address those problems, typically rooted in having the wrong people, you will not achieve the greatness that you desire for your organization. Face the problem of hidden issues that you can’t see. Immerse yourself on the front lines. What is really happening in the kitchen? What are the issues with your vendors? How are you tackling the wage pressure in the restaurant industry? Face those hidden issues early and often.

Later in the talk Ed Catmull gave some practical suggestions to address the process by which things get done at Pixar, also outlined in his excellent book Creativity, Inc. which puts accountability on the team and creates the safe space that every company says they want to have for their teams, but that very few companies actually have.

  1. Focus on the dynamics of the team. (My editorial to this is that if you have the right team, they will smoke a bad team member out. Your job as the leader is to listen to them and deal with the problem swiftly.)
  2. Establish a Braintrust – Peers talking to Peers. Remove the power structure from the room. Foster shared ownership in each other’s success. Give and listen to honest feedback. Egos disappear. The focus is on the problem.
  3. Rethink failures and errors.
  4. Make it safe for people to operate in the messy space.
  5. If the team is good, but the idea is bad, make it better or come up with something else.

I love the approach Ed Catmull took at Pixar and I think we can all learn a lot from the processes he put in place, regardless of the industry we are in. Focus on the team dynamics, establish a Braintrust, make it a safe place, and challenge the ideas you have. If they suck, kill the idea. Find something better. Don’t waste your efforts on an idea that has no merit. If the team you have is a good one then they will make it better or come up with something else.

The world we live in and work in (and if you are in the restaurant business this is especially for you), can be very messy. However with the proper perspective, you can thrive and create synergies and success if you ask the right questions, challenge the status quo, face the problems you can’t see, remove cultural and management obstacles, and most importantly have the right people on your team.

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Bobby Shaw

I am a former restaurant company executive with a passion for developing existing and future leaders to achieve high standards. I love helping organizations develop strong people cultures with an emphasis on leadership development that result in top-notch operations and better business results. I have over 30 years in the restaurant business in all facets of operations, from my start at McDonald's in the grill area in 1984 to overseeing 200+ restaurants with Chipotle Mexican Grill from 2002-2012 to leading Freebirds World Burrito's resurgence from 2013-2016 to working with the Salad and Go restaurant startup as CEO in 2016/2017. My real world experience transcends the typical operations background with a focus in leadership development and coaching. At the core of my background and experience, I believe that how leaders get results is just as important as getting them, and what got them where they are, won't necessarily get them where they want to go. I work closely with individual leaders and companies to improve their results through understanding how their strengths impact the overall results. My goal is to help business leaders and companies learn how to leverage the strengths of their employees by understanding their strengths and what they’re good at, and using that knowledge to positively impact their entire organization.

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