The Five Defenses Part 2: Structurelessness, Cooperation, and the Obstinate Individualism Complex

(Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to read The Five Defenses Part 1: Why We’re Reluctant to Take Control, which lays the groundwork for this post.)

In part one of The Five Defenses, we discussed the first of the most common defenses I’ve encountered in objection to the notion of an animation or visual-effects company that is democratically run by the artists. For simplicity, we referred to the first as “The exceptionalism complex”: the argument that someone has to run the company and the ingrained belief that exceptional companies are run by exceptional individuals.

In this piece we’ll move onto the second of the five defenses: The Obstinate Individualism Defense.


Nothing would ever get done.

(The Obstinate Individualism Complex).

The obstinate individualism complex is usually the alternate first defense to the exceptionalism complex; It’s sort of a variation on the same theme.  While both suggest that someone has to lead the company, this one implies that if the workers were vested with the power to influence the direction of the company, nothing would ever get done. It would just be too difficult to make any decisions, much less good ones.

It’s based more in the experiences we’ve all probably endured working with obstinate, difficult, ego-driven artists and/or those with no vision or drive at all.

If it’s not based in experiences with those types of people specifically, it’s grounded in the more rational reality that it can be difficult to achieve consensus on artistic or technical things, especially with independent minds, and sometimes you just need to make an executive decision. This is something I acknowledge, though I may not personally feel presents as great of a threat to the viability of a democratic company as some. Here’s why.

On Obstinate Individuals
First a few minor counterpoints. On the first point (difficult personalities), there are definitely those occasional people who really truly believe that everyone else’s ideas are inferior to their own. They don’t want consensus, they want their ego’s stroked. They jockey for power and recognition from their superiors, and while some of them are truly skilled, much of the time they’re exaggerating their contribution and ability. Or maybe they just want to be right about everything (or more accurately, they want everyone else to be wrong). They’re the kind of people who might fall into the ego-centric and/or delusional extreme of “The Exceptionalism Complex”. They make the worst colleagues and the worst bosses and are incredibly frustrating to work with.

What I think we neglect to consider when thinking of these types of personalities is that because their drive tends to be fueled by the need to attaining control and recognition, the only power they really have comes from how successfully they are at gaining the favor of their direct superiors (or sometimes skipping right over them and kissing up to the next level of management).

In many ways, the current system could actually empower and reward these types of personalities. If currently there are only two people they think they need to impress, but twenty people who see what they’re doing (which usually seems to be the case): wouldn’t it stand to reason that if upward mobility depended on gaining the favor of your 20 colleagues and not your 2 superiors, a democratic system might have a neutralizing affect on this behavior?

On The Challenges of Achieving Consensus
The second point (the challenge of achieving consensus), is a slightly more likely and complex scenario in my opinion. Even when we have the privilege of working with diplomatic leaders who seek our input and some form of consensus from their team, it still takes a special effort and a special type of personality to bring everyone onto the same page and there will almost always be some outliers even in the most cohesive groups.

The first thing I’d point out here is that how voting & consensus might work in a democratic enterprise need not be structureless and amorphous. Whether a company choses to go with a simple majority or a unanimous consensus is entirely up to what they establish in the bylaws. And of course if this isn’t working it can be changed later on.

I would also point out that we often fail to remember how difficult it can be for one supervisor or director to final-the-damn-shot-already! We fail to remember those dark rooms we’ve probably all sat in where every one else thought the work looked great (and it did), yet the director or supervisor just didn’t like some trivial, subjective nuance. The way that one imperceptible slice of shrapnel was rotated in an explosion or that ember was bursting off a flame. We fail to remember how that 5 second shot, that we all thought looked totally great the first time it was shown, went through three months of needless revision and review and we unanimously agreed it didn’t look any better for it (maybe even worse). We fail to remember those times we all watched a VFX Sup art-direct that beautifully photo-real character or creature right into the uncanny valley. We fail to remember that every one of the artists we talked to agreed that scene wasn’t working, knew that animation looked totally unbelievable, knew the story was totally absent and knew the movie was going to be a flop.

At least in my experience, the consensus we all shared in these moments outnumber and outweigh the times when conflict and obstinate individualism would have prevented us from getting things done. While I’m not trying to prove that achieving consensus is inherently easier than one person finaling-the-damn-shot, I’m simply pointing out that just because it’s what we’re used to doesn’t mean it’s easier or better.

On Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Any Of That….
Having said all this, I would like to note that the Obstinate Individualism Defense often stems from the conflation of a worker-cooperative and a flat-organizational structure.

To be fair, most of us in the U.S. don’t have a lot of experience with democratic companies or even know that a worker-cooperative & a plain old cooperative may have quite different meanings. A few years ago I couldn’t have told you the difference. While I’d like to focus more on these in greater detail later, I think it’s important to clarify that a leaderless or structureless company and a democratic worker-cooperative are not synonymous. So how are they different?

A Flat Organization
A flat-organizational structure, in its purest form, is one in which there is no management hierarchy. Instead they tend to organize into “self-managing teams” and every decision is made by consensus of the workers within those groups. Notable companies that operate within this paradigm are Valve (makers of Steam), Git-Hub, & Morning Star Co (for you vegetarians) and it’s a somewhat popular concept around Silicon Valley start-ups. It might sound a lot like the business equivalent of anarchy (essentially it is) and is an understandably scary concept for those of us who’ve witnessed good movies or projects ruined by committee. It’s radically different from anything we’ve ever witnessed in Visual Effects or Feature Animation.

This is what most of us tend to think of when we encounter terms like “artist-owned”, “democratically operated” or “one-worker, one vote”. But a flat organization is merely an organizational structure that could exist within any type of enterprise, worker-owned or otherwise. It should be noted that none of the companies mentioned above are technically cooperatives. So what is a worker-coop?

A Worker’s Self-Directed Enterprise (or Worker-Cooperative)
A worker-cooperative could have a flat-organizational structure like Valve & Git-Hub, or it could look very similar to Disney, Dreamworks or the company you already work in. It could have a board, directors, managers, CG supervisors, department leads, and even (yes even) a charismatic CEO.

The key difference between a worker-cooperative or and the company you already work in would be a system of inverted accountability. Leadership would  be democratically elected, pay-scales & profit distribution would be decided democratically, and workers would have some say in the overall direction of the company (without every artist needing to get caught up in the details of day-to-day operation). You and every one of your 500 colleagues would be an equal-part owner, and have an equal vote on issues that you establish are in your interest to influence.

This is generally thought to result in greater adaptability for the company, transparent & accountable leadership, greater worker participation and engagement, and a more equitable distribution of pay & benefits. For example, at the world’s largest worker-cooperative (employing over 80,000 workers across several industries), the average pay-scale differential between the lowest paid worker and the CEO is 1:5. Compare that to Imageworks (as recently revealed by the Sony leak) where the President, with salary + bonuses, makes roughly 45 times the average and closer to 225 times the salary of the lowest-paid (non-intern) workers at $4,681,700.

As a footnote, I should add there are some specific characteristics that might distinguish a W.S.D.E from the more general worker-coop, but for the time being I’m mentioning them in the same breath.

WE NEED TO ADAPT
We all know there will be trying times for any company and difficult financial situations to navigate. But one of the biggest problems of the Visual Effects industry is its inability (or unwillingness) to adapt. It’s an issue so significant that it has even spawned the name for a controversial but well known organization fighting for a version of that very thing.

Here’s the thing: I’ve gone to the marches with you, I’ve been there with you at the town-halls, I’ve had countless conversations with everyone from jr. artists to senior producers. We know what things need to change, we know the ways our companies and our industry need to adapt and we’re full of ideas on how to do it better. Across continents and at our respective studios we are all clamoring, shouting in for the same things. But even though we make documentaries and fly banners over Hollywood, even though hundreds of us March together with green shirts and signs to the red carpet, even though we have hundreds of articles written about our efforts, our struggles, our desires: we are still powerless to make a difference. The executives of our companies largely chose to ignore us, waiting for us to fizzle out and give up. Yet without us, our ideas, our innovation, our years of training and experience, our teamwork, our virtuosity at our craft, these companies have zero value. How completely ludicrous is that? Now just imagine that the ability of you and your fellow artists to influence the direction of your company (and our industry) were not a monumental (and seemingly futile) struggle but rather a pillar built into the very foundation of the company and tell me it’s not worth the effort or worth risks. Tell me these ideas are naive and idealistic and could never work. Tell me we shouldn’t have a legitimate say in the direction of a company whose value we invent and create. Or better yet, let’s work together, let’s discuss the strengths and weaknesses, and let’s find a way to make it work so that when all of these top-heavy, profit-driven companies collapse under the weight of their inflexible leadership and unsustainable business practices, the only thing left standing is the stable, creative, democratic industry we all deserve.

PREVIEW: The Five Defenses Part 3 -The Inferior Artist Complex
In part 3 we’ll discuss The Inferior Artists Complex and the argument that artists can’t run a company. It’s a defense that comes up often and can not be overlooked. As one VFXSoldier commenter suggested “inmates running the Asylum has been tried before and rarely succeeds.” After the release of part 1 on reddit, someone with some real-world experience in the matter suggested “Artists are terrible at running a company. (…) Artists don’t know or care about running a business.”

So is there any validity to this perspective, and what kind of implications would it have on a democratically run VFX/Animation company? That’s next in part 3.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION AT REDDIT /R/VFX or comment below

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2 thoughts on “The Five Defenses Part 2: Structurelessness, Cooperation, and the Obstinate Individualism Complex

  1. Pingback: The Five Defenses: Why We’re Reluctant to Take Control (Part 1) | The Animation Cooperative

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