Lately I am hearing about more and more companies adopting the Pixar concept of a Notes Day and I was wondering what exactly is a Notes Day, what would be a good format for such event and mainly if it could be successfully used in a DevOps inspired transformation of a company?
I see some interesting parallels in this story and The Phoenix Project. (Spoilers ahead for the book, if you haven't read it read this anyway :))
I take it the title for "Notes Day" comes from the term of art in Hollywood, where "notes" are constructive criticism about a work. In this story, Catmull plays the part of Parts Unlimited CEO Steve Masters. Catmull accepts that he can learn from his employees how to do a better job, as Masters does in Phoenix Project when he does his public mea culpa and apologizes to Bill Palmer.
In a sense, Catmull is also Brent- he's a major constraint. If his time was so precious, it meant that Pixar was struggling to delegate authority. It seems Catmull was critical to every decision, rather than able to set large-scale goals and leave it to employees to figure out how to achieve them.
An event like this might work well at some companies, less well in others. I think it's the key idea behind Notes Day that is most valuable: accountability and transparency from the highest levels of management to the last employee. That value can be spread throughout a company in a variety of big and small ways.
In his book Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull mentions a practice originating in movie business, when directors would receive feedback on their movie in progress, so called "Notes". At Pixar he was in charge of the company and that was his "movie" and in essence he envisioned a similar way to receive feedback on running the business. It was an event carefully planed in advance where all employees would take a day off from their work and use their creativity to improve how things are done. It was called "Notes Day".
Creativity, Inc and Pixar inspired other creative companies to adopt some of the same management practices. Here is a brief article on some of the basics. One such creative company adopting Notes Day as practice is Deeson as you can read in this blog. Even tech companies follow suit, this is an article by Slack on being inspired by Ed Catmull's ideas.
A place where I've experienced it personally is Cisco Meraki, former startup and now a business unit of Cisco, which is still operating independently, much like Pixar after being acquired by Disney. Notes day is a big event every year, the entire engineering organization plans a 4 day off-site event with engineers from all around the world coming to HQ for the week and then joining us at the offsite. The event helps build teams, foster new connections, propagate culture and a whole day is dedicated to planing, discussing and presenting projects that yearly improve many of the aspects of our day to day lives. Preparations start much earlier in the year and every year the format is tweaked a bit, the design team always takes a huge part and Sean Rhea is traditionally the driving force behind the event. You can read some more in a blog article by Adam Berman.