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| October 30, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… a technique that allows people to iterate on ideas without using harsh or judgmental language. While used typically in teams and on the ideas of others, plussing works equally well on one’s own ideas – when one’s self critic can be particularly vocal.

You may never have previously encountered the word “plussing.” Neither had I until I recently ran across several essays about Pixar and the tools that company uses to get its team of animators and others working on a film to collaborate with each other. In a word, the technique they use is called “plussing” which has been recognized as a feedback/mentoring approach that is particularly effective in stimulating collaboration and providing feedback in large groups. 
Pixar is extremely well known for its full-length animated feature films. Making an animated film requires collaboration across large numbers of employees with very different skill sets, and in particular among those who draw the animated images that become the film. Typically, an animator is assigned to work on one or two of the film’s many scenes at a time. A typical single scene, which might be four seconds long, requires about 100 frames (drawings) for the scene. It takes one animator about one week to animate one scene. As an example, it took Pixar five years to create the more than 146,000 images for the 2015 film Inside Out.
For Monsters, Inc., animators spent as much as 12 hours on a single frame, for example, animating each of Sully’s 320,413 individually animated blue hairs. Sometimes the process seemed more forensic than artistic. Story artists went through each detail of a scene, scanning for things that would likely go unnoticed by viewers – the placement of a prop or the way a character’s eyes move or the details of a shadow. Some of these changes would require significant rework in the complex web of formulas, coding, and even the physics that defines a character’s lifelike performance on screen. Further along the process, the bits and pieces of the story – camera angles, lighting, sound effects, motion capture – are reviewed and revised by film editors, technical directors, and creative designers.
Clearly, many talented individuals from multiple disciplines are needed to collaborate over long periods of time to create any one of these successful films.
The question is how do all of the animators, the director, and all the other highly skilled individuals working on film effectively collaborate. Each day each animator’s work is fed into a central system that serves as a platform where the director and others associated with the film can review all of the previous day’s work. Then, the next morning they meet to review the work from the previous day, and critique it.
And, as you might expect, that critique can be brutal. To make the meeting productive, Pixar has its own system for feedback built on candor, open communication, and a surprising openness to other people’s ideas. The company calls the system “plussing.” Its origin is attributed to Walt Disney and the way he ran his production meetings at Disney. The organizational principle is simple: No one is permitted to shoot down an idea; your criticism must come with a “plus,” a new idea or a suggestion for strengthening the original.
Joe Hirsch, author and managing director of Semaca Partners, a management consulting firm, illustrates this process in his essay “Pixar’s Secret for Giving Feedback.”1 There Hirsch writes, “Instead of shutting down ideas completely, animators try to add on to the idea with suggestions for improvement. So, when the creative director for Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story 4 [slated for release in 2019] doesn’t like the way Woody’s eyes roll from frame to frame, she won’t just toss the sketch. Instead, she’ll ‘plus’ it by asking the story artist, ‘I like the way you drew Woody’s eyes. What if they roll left?’”
Jim Dunbar,2 who currently works in public libraries and regional library systems and provides library services to the general public and to rural libraries in Alberta, Canada, provides another example:  “Consider the situation where a director is working with an animator on a scene. The director may not like much about the entire sequence. However, she will identify one aspect of the scene she does like (perhaps the movement of the main character) and then say ‘I like how Huck’s body twists as he swings the bat and what if he were to smile as he does that?’ Now the animator has some feedback to build on. Notice that ‘and’ does not imply judgment as the word ‘but’ would have. Rather, ‘and’ opens up the possibilities for discussing ideas and thoughts. I believe this is a very powerful technique for encouraging the sharing of ideas and for allowing concepts to develop. In the initial stages, creative ideas are fragile and the individuals proposing them are very sensitive to judgment and criticism.”
While you might see this as just semantics, the effect is significant. Rather than rejecting ideas in their entirety, “plussing” provides an individual with a mechanism to use to add to the original idea without rejecting it or using harsh or judgmental language. Andy Cleff3 also notes that while plussing was initially used in teams on other people’s ideas, it can also be effectively helpful if you use it to critique your own ideas.
Plussing can be summarized in three basic rules, the first two of which are taken from the world of improvisation:

1.  Accept all offers. In other words, listen. This is the first rule of improvisation where you respond, Yes, and … not, Yes, but … In plussing, you say “Yes, and …” or “What if …” or “How can we now …” or “Yes, and what if we were not to …” Joe Hirsch1 makes several other suggestions – instead of “This will never work,” we ask “What if we tried …?”; instead of “I don’t see that happening,” we ask, “How might we do this?;” and instead of “We’re not staffed for that,” you suggest “Let’s try to reallocate.” You get the idea, you take notice of something with a positive voice and then raise your issue in a question.

Gogek4 reminds us that psychology tells us that the best way to foster creativity is to make sure that people remain intrinsically motivated, that is motivated by the internal personal satisfaction success will bring. Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile has spent some four decades researching this connection and has found it to be true for all groups of people, from children to professional artists, to knowledge workers.
2.  Make your partner look good. This is the second rule of improv. Praise the person and keep any criticism focused on the idea, the work, problems you see. Don’t say, “You always …” Instead, you might say, “Wow, that’s an unexpected approach…” And, then you still engage in a critical discussion by moving the conversation’s focus to the proposal, etc. You might ask, “What would we need if we were to take that approach?” Throughout the discussion, you want to keep the focus on the issue and avoid any negatives of separating the person from the problem. 

3.  Structure the debate. Plussing is different from brainstorming. In plussing, the dialogue is like a structured debate, serious and constructive. Your goal is to review the existing work and to generate ideas that build further and create better.  Throughout you need to listen respectfully and respect the talents and abilities of all your colleagues involved in the discussion.   

So, that’s plussing. Think of it as a new tool for your toolkit. Perhaps you might use it the next time you are reviewing a project with your team. Or, perhaps you might use it to help you work through the intricacies of a project or a problem you are personally working on now. You might also use it as an approach in your coaching and mentoring to help your coachee see the questions he or she should be asking as they work through the issue they are facing. And, like any tool you have to practice using it so that it will be available to you when it’s needed. So, need I suggest that you try it out this week.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Joe Hirsch, “Pixar’s Secret For Giving Feedback,” LEADx, June 2017.
  2. Jim Dunbar, “Pixar and Plussing,” infoGumshoe Blog, November 2011.
  3. Andy Cleff, “’Plussing’ – Learning and Working in a Collaborative Environment,” AWEBER/ENGINEERING, September 2014.
  4. Daniel Gogek, “How Pixar Turned Their Criticizers into Creators – and Changed the Movie World Forever,” LinkedIn, December 2015.

Additional Reading:

  1. David Burkus, How Criticism Creates Innovative Teams,” Harvard Business Review, June 2013.
  2. Len Brzozowski, “Pixar’s Plussing: Creating a Culture of Dissent,” lenbrzozowski blog, October 2012.