The Force Awakens — And With It, Our Workplaces?
Star Wars may be futuristic, but George Lucas’ management style was a throwback, and one with big lessons for how to make work more meaningful in modern organizations.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
We could all learn from George Lucas’ throwback management style.
The author is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. His new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin), will be published in February 2016.
You’re standing inside the offices of a hot Silicon Valley technology company. The space is bright, wide open, and hip in a minimalist sort of way — twenty-foot ceilings, polished concrete floors, flat-screen televisions mounted in corners. Dozens of smartly dressed young people lounge in public areas, focusing on their phones and laptops. Skateboards, backpacks, and the occasional fold-up bicycle adorn the floor. The employees seem happy — busy, focused productive. Clearly the company’s leadership team is doing something right.
Ask the execs, and they’ll tell you their company is thriving not only because it builds advanced technologies, but also because of its workplace innovations: advanced videoconferencing, cloud-based applications, and Fitbits for tracking employees’ physical movements. Dozens of technological solutions combine to make this company the very picture of today’s leading-edge digital workplace.
Now imagine a very different workplace, less than two hours away, in California’s Marin County. It’s the 1980s and we’re on a huge, bucolic ranch with grape vines and olive trees and more wild animals than people. Workspaces are relegated largely to a sprawling white Victorian house and another, larger brick structure called the “technical building.” Inside either one, you’ll find bright young employees at work, this time with wireless phones the size of fruit bowls, Xerox machines the size of battle tanks, and boxy desktop computers.
What this old-fashioned workplace lacks in tech it seems to make up in social contact — lots of it. Everywhere you look, you see employees consulting informally with one another, but there’s no trace of formal meetings, departments, or titles. Serious work is being done, but the way everyone is collaborating, bantering, and throwing around insider language, they seem less like workers and more like a family. With a hint of awe in their voices, employees relate how the company’s legendary founder will spend hours sitting with junior staff, learning about their work and providing expert feedback and coaching.
And look, there’s the company’s founder now, lingering over a computer screen as an employee explains something to him. He looks up, and you spot his shock of thick, black hair and his handsome, angular, bespectacled face. It’s George Lucas, the founder of Lucasfilms, the impresario behind Industrial Light and Magic, and the force behind Star Wars and Indiana Jones, two of the top movie franchises of all time, with billions of dollars in total sales.
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The workplace I’m describing is of course Skywalker Ranch, an epicenter of filmmaking’s digital revolution during the 1980s and 1990s (and still today). Filmgoers the world over continue to enjoy the exciting technologies that came out of Skywalker Ranch, including “motion control” that enabled synchronized actions (think of spaceships engaging in dogfights); computer graphics imaging or CGI (including the first realistic digital animals and water effects); and the THX sound that defines the modern day cinema viewing experience. It’s much lesser known, but over decades, Lucasfilms also spawned a generation of top talent in film production, its employees going on to play starring roles in companies like Pixar, Sonic Solutions, THX, and Avid Technologies.
And here’s the irony: Lucas created a whole series of blockbuster digital innovations and generated huge financial success for himself and everyone around him — all without the high-tech wizardry on which today’s companies rely. How exactly did he do it? And can we learn anything from a seemingly bygone era that most modern managers would relegate to an anachronism?
Lucas began building his ranch during the early-1980s. He had gone to film school at the University of Southern California and found it, as Lucas once told Rolling Stone, to be “a great environment; a lot of people all very interested in film, exchanging ideas, watching movies, helping each other out. I wondered why we couldn’t have a professional environment like that.” Skywalker Ranch was to be a kind of creative retreat for filmmakers, and it was no accident that Lucas located it hundreds of miles away from the industry’s center in Hollywood.
As a number of former employees told me, during the early years, Skywalker Ranch was indeed special. Producer and former Lucasfilms executive Sid Ganis (who went on to become the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) told me that, “[Skywalker Ranch] buzzed from the day I started until the day I left six and a half years later. It never stopped buzzing. It was great every single solitary day.”
This energy didn’t simply owe to Lucas’ ability, by virtue of his success with the original Star Wars movie, to attract talented young producers, editors, writers, special effects technologists, and sound engineers. It also owed to what we might regard as Lucas’ paradoxically “analog” way of organizing work at his company.
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Many companies deploy advanced technology to monitor employees, collecting data about their every movement. As the thinking goes, the more data we can collect about individual employees, and the smarter we can be about using that data, the more productive our workplaces will be. Logistics companies track drivers to make sure they’re driving optimal routes. Restaurants track orders to analyze the selling behavior of servers and ensure they’re not stealing. Meanwhile, wearable “sociometric badges” are on their way in. Monitoring speech and body movement during employees’ in-person interactions, employers can understand how salespeople and others function with customers, how they collaborate , and how they might do even better. Even George Orwell didn’t imagine all of this.
“Digital micromanaging” can certainly help organizations reduce employee theft and boost productivity. But the story of George Lucas the leader shows us a very different path. Rather than use technology to constrain what people could do on the job, Lucas created technology by releasing the potential of the people who worked with him. In many cases he gave employees far more responsibility and freedom than they would receive at traditional companies. “One of the best things George Lucas did for us was to leave us alone,” says Ron Gilbert, who worked in the games division of Lucasfilms during the late-1980s and 1990s. “He just kind of gave us the resources to go off and create and come up with things.” Good thing he did: The results of this hands-off approach were often nothing short of amazing.
During production of the original Star Wars, Lucas asked sound designer Ben Burtt to develop the iconic voice for the R2D2 character. Burtt was to create “organic” sounds that seemed to evoke human personality, and he was to use manipulations of real-life sounds he recorded rather than the synthesized, electronic sounds that were then in fashion for science fiction films. Beyond those guidelines, Burtt was free to use his own creative judgment. Lucas didn’t stand over Burtt’s shoulder monitoring his every move, and he certainly didn’t deploy technology to do so. He wasn’t obsessed about uncovering hidden patterns in Burtt’s behavior that might require a course correction. Lucas had hired Burtt for his talent, and he trusted him to use that talent to produce something great. End of story.
That’s not to say Lucas was uninvolved as a boss — he was involved, intimately. As Burtt created noises he believed could constitute a language for R2D2, he’d present them to Lucas for his approval. The two huddled together to settle upon sounds that Lucas liked. “I just had the freedom and I could just put an idea together and present it to him,” Burtt told me. “Then he could pick through it and take out what he doesn’t like…and add his own ideas to it. I had a chance to crystallize my own ideas about something and then see if they would work.”
Imagine having a chance to collaborate with an industry legend, to learn at his feet, to soak in his wisdom, his passion, his vision. A number of early Lucas employees I interviewed described precisely this kind of experience, recalling the kind of traditional master-apprentice relationships that have defined how work was done for hundreds of years. (Is it any wonder that so many of the relationships in the Star Wars movies link masters and apprentices?). Visual effects producer Phil Tippett, who worked with Lucas on the first three Star Wars films, remembered that Lucas, “really worked with you as a craftsman or an artist. He would come back into the stages where we were working and check out what we were doing and chat with us…He would really invite you into the process.” Sid Ganis related how after Steven Spielberg and George Lucas screened Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas gave Spielberg “three hours of notes on the movie.” To Ganis, “that describes who he was and how he was.”
So many bosses today don’t make time for close teaching and coaching. They’re tethered to their smart phones, overscheduled to death, multi-tasking even during meetings, and as a result — despite their best intentions, in many cases — they ignore the very people on whom their mission depends. As a result, employees frequently don’t get the instruction they need to do their jobs well, nor do they receive guidance that helps them grow. A 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that “only 2 percent [of managers] provide ongoing feedback to their employees.” Two percent! Think of how much extraordinary talent like Tippett and Burtt is going unnurtured, how many breakthrough ideas are going unexplored and undeveloped.
Lacking time for personal coaching and teaching, bosses also can’t develop an intimate sense of their employees’ personalities, how they’re progressing, and how they feel about their work. Of course, there’s a new technological solution for this: Hitachi has unveiled “happiness analytics,” which takes data about employees’ physical movements, plugs it into an algorithm, and spits out a reading of how happy they are. Who knows — happiness analytics might one day soon help bosses keep employees happier and more engaged. With surveys showing that less than one-third of employees in 2014 were “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace,” that could only be a good thing. But another approach for gauging happiness is to do it the old fashioned way: by spending time with employees, listening to them, coaching them, working with them. That’s what George Lucas did. And as so many of his former employees told me, it had an impact.
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Creating an environment where trust, collegiality and collaboration flourished was a big part of Lucas’ success. But it also required much more: Vision. A number of former employees told me that Lucas’ unique vision inspired them to work their hardest and unleash their imaginations to the fullest. Leaders today often articulate their visions publicly, acknowledging it as something a company needs to have. But vision shouldn’t be something you “need to have.” You can’t focus-group your way to crafting a vision. It must be authentic and compelling.
By all accounts, Lucas’ vision was both of these things. As one of his protégés excitedly related to me, he “changed the way movies were made with Star Wars.” Another, Michael Rubin, the author of Droidmaker and a young member of Lucasfilms’ Graphics Group in the 1980s, recalled that hearing George Lucas talk about his vision of film technology was transformational. “I heard him explain what the future could be like and I was infected with that at age twenty-two. I believed him. And it changed my career.”
This last quote is especially important: Lucas’ vision wasn’t something impersonal that appeared on the company website. It was something that Lucas himself communicated — in person, the old-fashioned way. And because he did so, his employees regarded it as undeniably authentic and absolutely urgent. Remembering his initial encounters with George Lucas, Phil Tippett said, “It wasn’t a calculation on any level for Lucas. It was like, ‘I’m going to do this stuff until somebody shoots me.’”
Lucas protégé Howard Roffman remembered that when he first became Lucasfilms’ head of licensing around 1986, Star Wars had already lost popularity. Roffman was tasked with getting people excited about the film again. When he consulted with industry players, however, he found them dubious; “Every one of them looked at me like I was crazy,” since they felt that “Star Wars was dead.” Roffman wasn’t looking forward to breaking this news to George Lucas, but to his surprise, Lucas was undeterred. “Star Wars isn’t dead,” he said with remarkable prescience “it’s just sleeping. Just give it some time. Someday all those people who saw it are going to have their own kids and are going to want to introduce them. We can try to make a comeback then.” That ability to remain confident and committed to a vision when everyone else was skeptical impressed Roffman so much that he thought of it decades later during our interview.
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Lucas was and is a revolutionary filmmaker. But the Star Wars movies originated in a way of organizing the workplace that both liberated and inspired people to do their best. Lucas spawned movies and talent thanks to an analog model of management, one built around in-person interaction, trust, and relationships, including those between the master (Lucas) and his apprentices as well as between apprentices themselves. How interesting that an analog organization, not a digital one, was capable of creating some of the world’s most advanced film technologies. And what might happen, I wonder, if more companies today embraced Lucas’s analog model of managing people instead of relying on the next great technological innovation that tracks how we live and breathe at work.
As a model for other organizations, the modern, Silicon Valley-style workspace has its virtues — it achieves the efficiency and productivity investors and executives dream about. Yet it also risks sucking a good deal of the humanity out of work. Efficiency and productivity might allow managers to squeeze profit out of a business, but it might hurt us when it comes to creating epic breakthroughs that change the world.
In a recent column in The New York Times entitled, “Humanity as a Competitive Advantage,” Tony Schwartz observes that, “We live in a world of ever-increasing convenience and easily accessible expertise made possible by vast and staggering advances in technology, but ever-decreasing in-person, one-to-one interaction with human beings.” When you sit down to watch the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, take a moment to appreciate the leader who was behind it, and all that he did to create it. Take a moment to consider how it was that an “analog leader” could produce some of the most fantastic digital innovations over a period of decades. And think about all that your work life might be if the force of human creativity and dynamism could awaken there as well.