Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Problem with Magic

Let’s play a word association game.  The only rule is that you have to answer with the name of a company.

I say, “magical.”   

You say, “Disney,” right?  It’s the name that comes immediately to mind, thanks in part to their own branding, and in part to the fact that many of us have had some kind of magical experience--at the movies, at a park, on a cruise--with the company through the years.

Now, let’s try again, but you need a new answer.  I say, “magical.”  

You say, ah, “Apple?”  I think that’s right.  The products produced by Apple in the last few years, especially pods, phones and pads, have been pretty close to magical.   This isn’t quite the same as Disney, but more along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Let me try again.  I say, “magical.”  You say. . .nothing?  Silence?  Is there no third?  I’m guessing not, at least not current and universal.  I have a very vague recollection of Ma Bell feeling magical, despite her inelegant black phone; the idea of a system allowing global communications that never, ever went down was, for most 20th-century humans, indistinguishable from magic.

In fact, given the “get it to market fast and worry about good later” attitude of today’s technologists, a system allowing global communications that never, ever goes down would be magical today as well.

So, we might ask, if there are just two contemporary magical corporations, what do Disney and Apple have in common?  Not having worked at either, my only data points are reading, occasional second-hand reports, a visit to Disney World, and using an iPad and Phone.

In addition, though, I read and loved James B. Stewart’s Disney War.  And as of yesterday, I can now add the superb piece of reporting by Adam Lashinsky on Apple in the current edition of Fortune magazine.

So, what’s the commonality?  Maybe this, strange as it seems: When Disney and Apple are churning out real magic, they are intense, stressful, brutal, unforgiving places to work.  Let me say that another way: Mildly unhappy, often underpaid and underappreciated people seem to be very good at making magic.
In fact, accepting the limitations of a data set of only two, we might argue that they are the only kind of people able to manufacture magic.

As Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg reclaimed Disney’s animation in the 1980s and 90s, and we were all mesmerized by blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, the backroom of Disney was a contentious, sometimes downright cruel place to work.  Stewart tells us that the CEO did abominable things and then wrote about them in long memos to members of the board.  The cartoonists often churned in sweatshop conditions.  Why did people stay, and sometime work for less?  Because they knew they were creating magic, and were part of something special.

A review by Steve Daly helps sum it up:
“You step into a faux limo while an animatronic Eisner holds forth on Disney's proud creative tradition. But as the vehicle takes off, other Disney execs try to derail you. An angry Eisner periodically reappears, admonishing you to do things faster, cheaper, better. Finally, you're dumped at the exit in a burst of pink-slip confetti.  Imagine watching that ride go around, say, a dozen more times, and you've got the exhausting vibe of DisneyWar. While the epilogue asserts that ''nothing will erase'' Eisner's ''record of extraordinary achievement,'' the book's body relentlessly measures the human cost of that record in terms of the many talented people Eisner has driven from his kingdom. . . .
In the for-what-it’s-worth department, I also had a conversation with a business friend who told me he had the single worst meeting of his life at Disney, when folks from the company went for each other’s juglars in front of guests.   It was just part of the culture, he thought.

The culture of making magic.

The recent article about Apple in Fortune is actually pretty well balanced and generally complimentary about the company, its CEO and its people.  Some people get yelled at, but they probably should have been yelled at.  Yet make no mistake--the price of magic at Apple is pressure, sweat, contentiousness, and, as with Disney, a certain amount of brutality.

“People join and stay,” one headhunter said, “because they believe in the mission of the company, even if they aren’t personally happy.”  A former executive said, “Apple’s attitude is, ‘You have the privilege of working for the company making the fxxxing coolest products in the world.  Shut up and do your job, and you might get to stay.’”

Fortune summarizes, “Apple’s ruthless corporate culture is just one piece of a mystery that virtually every business executive in the world would love to understand: How does Apple do it?”

So, what are we left with?  We know that there are hundreds of companies with terrible work environments that turn out terrible product.  

We also know of companies that have very pleasant work environments that turn out terrible product.

And now, Disney and Apple seem like two good examples--and the only two--of companies with brutal work environments that turn out magical experiences.

So, I’m wondering if there’s anything that fills that upper right quadrant, the “magical work environment-meets-magical output” space.  I mean something of scale, with thousands of people all being directed toward a single mission, singing Kum By Ah and churning our memorable stuff.

I’m thinking Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.

Unfortunately, that's all I've got.   Does it not seem funny that there aren’t  a whole lot more?