Adam Savage visited movie director Guillermo del Toro while he was working on Pacific Rim and was blown away by the size and scope of the project. With hundreds of people working on sets, stages, and props that involved cities, oceans, and giant robots and monsters, there were an impossible amount of details to tend to. Savage asked del Toro how he could keep so many people on the same page, to which he replied, “you have to give everyone autonomy within a narrow bandwidth.” This simple concept, of communicating a clear vision and then empowering his people to execute with their own authority, extends directly into our professional lives.
We don’t need to be micromanagers or be micromanaged, we just need to know where we’re headed and the parameters for the mission. We may not be building gigantic robots (well, maybe not ALL of us are), but we are all tending to important details. Whether it’s with clients or coworkers, and no matter where we are in the hierarchy, the big picture that guides how we treat the details matter. Savage explains it best (from his book Every Tool’s a Hammer, emphasis added):
What he meant, was that after you get their buy-in on the larger vision, you need to strictly define their roles in the fulfillment of that vision, and then you need to set them free to do their thing. You want the people helping you to be energized and involved. You want the people helping you to contribute their creativity, not just following your orders. Giving them creative autonomy rewards their individual genius while keeping them oriented to the North Star of your larger, shared vision.
Whether you are the captain of your relegated ship or the lowest swabbie of the poop deck of the project, the fact remains that none of us is an island. We are, each of us, part of a community, and never more so than when we are makers, creating new worlds out of our imaginations.
It’s nice to think we can do it alone. It pushes all our ego buttons to consider ourselves the singular genius, but experience shows all makers that every success is a shared success. And, every shared success is an investment into the culture that produced the success in the first place.
It’s a powerful passage, speaking to both how we lead and how we follow. When the vision is clear, when ownership and autonomy exist at every level of a project, people produce truly special results.