The Handle And The Suitcase

“It is up to the individual to remember that it’s okay to use the handle, just as long as you don’t forget the suitcase.”  -Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation shares a visual in his new book, Creativity Inc. where he asks us to “imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads.” He describes the “handle” of that suitcase as those defining principles, phrases, processes or mantras that we expound and rely upon, believing they will carry us through. Whereas, he shares how, “the suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from the struggle.”

It is here that Catmull shows the disconnect that can happen in many of our organizations. “Too often, we grab the handle and – without realizing it – walk off without the suitcase. What’s more we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.”

What we often don’t realize, is how often the “handle” and “suitcase” disconnect happens in our organizations. Grand visions, inspiring mantras, and impressive mission statements can take the place of real work and real action. Or as Catmull shares, “people glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.” And when this happens, we have a tendency to use words that “imply” value and latch on use them as a “substitute” for “value itself”.

And why is or should this be a concern?

When we have a disconnect between the “handle” and the “suitcase” our principles, mantras, processes and phrases begin to lose their meaning. The “handle” becomes hollow without the “suitcase” connected to it. And while it may be much lighter to carry the “handle”, it has no weight or substance attached to it.

Or as Catmull adds, “words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless. Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.”

Which is why the visual of the “handle” and the “suitcase” is terribly vital in and for our modern day organizations.  When they become disconnected and detached from each other, so do the meaning and worth of our principles, phrases, processes, and mantras.

Or as Catmull extolls, “to ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.” 

And this is not to say that principles, phrases, processes, and mantras or wrong. Rather, they are necessary and needed, as long as they have real value and meaning for those they serve within the organization. Or as Catmull reminds, “I still understand the need for faith in a creative context.”

Which is why it remains incredibly important that we do not disconnect the process from our people. They don’t exist in a vacuum separated from each other. Ideas do not exist without the people who create them. Processes do not work without the people who use and create them. Mantras don’t motivate when they are separated from the people and work that took you to this place. Which is why we cannot detach the “handle” from the “suitcase”.

Or as Catmull expounds, “when we trust the process – or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process – we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries.”

Today’s leaders must remember the necessity of doing the heavy lifting, especially if they want to give weight and meaning to the principles, processes, phrases, and mantras that fill their organization. When leaders are only willing to carry the “handle”…much of what they say has a tendency to fall flat and ring hollow in the ears of those they lead. It take both the “handle” and the “suitcase” to connect our processes and people. Especially if we want to move our organizations forward in meaningful and effective ways.

“Quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do. Everyone says quality is important, but they must do more than say it. They must live, think, and breathe it.”  -Ed Catmull Creativity Inc.

References and quotes from…

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity Inc. Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration. 2014. Random House, New York.


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