When ‘helpful’ advice shuts you down

Jim Hull noted a fascinating article from the Harvard Business School website about the way people can be creatively shut down by those trying the aid them with ‘helpful’ suggestions. Jim’s take is that this can make animation dailies counterproductive. As a mentor and as someone who believes in actively collaborative environments, I worry that I’m sometimes on the other side of this equation, that I’m the one shutting people down. Here’s the relevant section of the article:

One of the classic interpersonal challenges I see in brilliant, technically gifted people is their desire to “add value,” especially to other people’s ideas.

When does this occur?

Imagine that you are an entry-level employee. I am your manager. You come to me with an idea — which you think is great. You have been working on this idea for months and are really excited about what you have developed. I like the idea.

Rather than just saying, “great idea!” — being the brilliant, technically gifted person I am, I may well say, “That is a very good idea. Why don’t you add this to it?”

This could well be a case of trying to add “too much value,” and here’s the problem: the quality of the idea may go up 5% with my suggestions, but your commitment to its execution may go down 50%. It is no longer your idea; as your manager, I have now made it my idea.

I’ve had it happen to me, and I’m know I’ve done it to others. As Jim writes about the dailies process, “There comes a point when you’ve made so many changes to a scene that it no longer belongs to you and your interest in it plummets. I’ve had this happen before and always chalked it up to laziness.” Welcome to animator hell, where your shot circles round and round like it’s been dropped in a toilet and flushed.

Where I’ve felt this phenomenon most obviously, however, is when I’ve been kicking around an idea for a film or some personal animation, and someone does this number to me:

If we are honest with ourselves, when we start excessively pontificating and trying to add value, we are often not really focused on the quality of the idea at all. We are just trying to prove to the world how smart we really are.

Ideas are really fragile that way, and sharing them with a pontificating know-it-all is sure death to those ideas. Or at least death to your drive to go forward and develop the ideas.

I still think animation, the supremely collaborative medium that it is, requires lots of input and suggestions and value adding. Plussing, as Disney liked to call it. But clearly this is a two-edged blade, and the article has some good advice for us all:

Ask yourself, “Will my ‘added value’ make this person more – or less – committed to doing a great job?”

Ask yourself, “Is this comment going to make our team more effective – or is it just intended to prove that I am more clever than my peers?”

Ask yourself, “Do these people really care about the ‘sermon’ that I am about to deliver – or am I just annoying them?”

Sad to say, we’ve all known people who have to say ‘yes‘ to those questions, especially the last two. Try not to be one of those people yourself, while still being able to give good feedback and advice to your coworkers and peers.

(Credit where credit is due Department: the article in question is by Marshall Goldsmith.)

8 Responses to “When ‘helpful’ advice shuts you down”

  1. Todd Says:

    Wow…excellent post, Kevin.

    I think anyone who’s spent any amount of time in this business has had a few of those “helpers.” I let myself get led astray once by someone who knew *exactly* what the director would and wouldn’t approve. And I too experienced that frustration and lack of interest…as well as ending up having to strip out a large chunk of drawings because the director didn’t like “my” approach to the scene.

    Since then, I make sure that whomever asks my opinion knows it’s my opinion. Almost to the point of annoyance. 🙂

    Your post illustrates that part of the animation game is knowing when to speak, when to listen, and why internal editing is important. Thanks for putting that up. I’ve bookmarked Mr. Goldsmith’s article for future reference.

  2. Kevin Says:

    Hey, Todd, great to hear from you. I was going through some boxes in my garage last night and I found my stack of Chel model sheets and xeroxed scenes. Brought back some fond memories. I wish I had a scanner large enough to easily scan some of that stuff, but one way or the other I’ll put up a post or two about our work from that film.

    Anyway, thanks for the good words. I enjoyed your website, too.

  3. Serguei Says:

    This is great post Kevin. It’s a good idea to be careful with the ‘peoples’ enthusiasm’. You’ve seen this all and yes if you talk about that I believe you’ll do it right… Well, just to add, I’d like you to watch the shot I’ve made last year with my dearest colleagues:

  4. Olivier L. Says:


  5. Kevin Says:

    Serguei, welcome! I’m honored you’ve visited. Serguei used to kind of scare me when I was a clean-up guy and was working on one of his Miguel scenes in Road to El Dorado. He was so exacting. It wasn’t till I was in the animation department that I realized he was about the nicest guy in the studio, and I started stealing his music ’cause he has such good taste.

    Go check out his website and prepare to be amazed. Talk about range, take a look at his short film, “The Log” and then the rest of his animation.

    Hey, that’s a crazy Youtube video. It seems to kind of illustrate the point of this post in a weird way. I especially like the ‘why’ fart!

  6. Serguei Says:

    Kevin thanks for your compliments. I do not know if I have to say (I’m sorry) because I’ve never meant to scary anyone, but I’m glad it has a happy ending.
    I have to say that I admire you for what you do in any field. It looks like anything you do ether it’s a cleanup, animation on president of the Union you do it just Great! So I would think it’s not only your education which is highly acclaimed, but it certainly, you are extremely talented Artist. Pleasure, to know you.

  7. Todd Says:

    At the risk of hijacking an important topic with my personal thoughts…

    Serguei, what a talent. I enjoyed what little time we shared speaking to each other about music and such (I’d lent him a collection of Chaplin videos once and discovered a fellow fan in one of my favorite bands, Crowded House), and found that only a man so gentle could create such touching animation of baby Moses in “The Prince of Egypt.” Truly one of the great animators of our generation.

    And thanks Kevin for your compliment on my site! It was quite the project, that’s for sure. Glad you liked it.

    As for “El Dorado” and Chel, I too have some great memories from that film. And it’s funny– I was thinking about posting some Chel things on my blog as well, mostly about how difficult her face could be to draw and how I attempted to get around that. Guess that could be one of the next ones.

  8. Kevin Says:

    No worries, Serguei, it wasn’t you who was really scary, it was me being intimidated and not knowing you at all. Like Todd, said, what a talent. And it’s definitely a pleasure to know you. It’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.

    Yeah, Todd, for such a screwed up movie it was still a pleasure to work on Chel, partly because Tanja and Rodolphe were so cool, and partly because it was so much fun bring her to life.

Leave a Reply

The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch