I’ve recently started reading Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull. I’m not very far in yet, but in the first few pages, there was an anecdote that spoke rather deeply to me.
Catmull tells us of a table in a meeting room (West One) that was fundamentally incompatible with Pixar culture, in unexpected ways. It was narrow and long, forcing people to sit in neat rows opposite one another. And as that means it’s not entirely easy to communicate, they also had place cards, putting the higher-ups in the middle so that they could hear everyone.
The further out a person sat on the table, the less likely they were part of the conversation, because it was harder to hear everything and be heard.
Part of the problem, he continues to explain, was that the people sitting in the center did not even realize that there was a problem: they could hear everything. They thought they knew what everyone was up to and doing.
I see this as a very, very handy metaphor to explain the problem of structural disadvantages in general. Those in the middle, those in the positions of power do not see anything wrong, because for them, nothing is. And how could it be different for anyone else? Isn’t everyone seated at the very same table? And why should they be giving up their seat – everyone’s the same around this table, are they not?
So fights start, to get from the outside of the seating order more to the center; and people start expending energies into fights that distract from what the actual, general agenda is. And suddenly, it is more about being heard than what you have to say.
The solution Pixar finally realized it had to apply? They got a new table, a new seat layout. That put everyone in a position to equally be communicating with all the others.
Maybe it also is time that we examined how we could generally leave behind our old sitting order.