Behind the Scenes at Pixar: How to Manage a Creative Organization

Over the years, Ed Catmull, president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has developed a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.

Managing a creative organization entails a constant balancing act between the potentially opposing goals of encouraging creative freedom and ensuring an orderly process and consistent financial results.

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that it people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision-making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group.

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.

Pixar’s mechanism to collaboration is the Braintrust, which they rely on to push them toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. According to Catmull, the premise of the Braintrust is simple:

Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.

The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

Phenomenal, as in:

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17 movies released since Pixar began in 1995

14 No. 1 Box Office hits in a row

Over $10.7 billion in ticket sales

Which makes it all the more strange to hear Catmull give his opinion about 1 common theme of all Pixar movies:

Early on, all our movies suck.

Catmull says that phrasing is blunt, but he chose it because saying it any softer fails to convey how bad the first versions really are.

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.

No matter what, the process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.

When questioned about the Braintrust being like any other feedback mechanism, Catmull elaborated:

There are two key differences. First, the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. Second, the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific questions. It is up to him or her how to address the feedback.

If the foundation of the Braintrust is candor, its supporting framework is that the directors must be ready to hear the truth. Candor is only valuable it the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can. – Andrew Stanton, Pixar director, screenwriter, producer, and occasional voice actor

Leaders who resonate with ideas like the Braintrust but fear they would never work at their organizations should note Stanton’s encouragement:

You can and should make your own solution group. Here are the qualifications: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.

 That’s advice any organization would do well to take.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Look for Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc

 

What’s On the Mind of the Class of 2020?

It’s mid-August, and school is back in session for most students.

That means it’s time for my annual encouragement for leaders to take a look at the mindset of this year’s entering college freshmen, the class of 2020 – courtesy of Beloit College.

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Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall.

Prepared by Beloit’s director of public affairs emeritus Ron Nief, professor of English emeritus Tom McBride, and Associate Dean of the College Charles Westerberg, the list was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references. It quickly became an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation.

Leaders – of all ages – need to understand what has shaped the lives of today’s entering college freshman class.

We have had the NOW generation…get ready for the RIGHT NOW generation, entering college this fall. This fall’s entering college students, the class of 2020, were born in 1998 and cannot remember a time when they had to wait for anything. They also can’t recall a time when the United States was not at war, or when someone named Bush or Clinton was not running for office.

And although they think of themselves as a powerful generation—Sanders voters, consumers—they are faced with the prospect of student loan debt and of robots and foreigners taking their jobs making them feel anxious and weak. “They know that they’re going to have to wait for that first breakthrough job and getting their school loans paid off.” said Tom McBride, one of the List’s authors. “They’re an impatient generation learning how to be patient.”

You need to read the whole list here, but these are my Top Ten:

  • There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay.
  • There have always been Cadillac Escalades, but they just don’t seem to be all that into cars.
  • The Sandy Hook tragedy is their Columbine.
  • The United States has always been at war.
  • Serena Williams has always been winning Grand Slam singles titles.
  • They have never had to watch or listen to programs at a scheduled time.
  • Each year they’ve been alive the U.S. population has grown by more than one million Latinos.
  • If you want to reach them, you’d better send a text—emails are oft ignored.
  • Robots have always been surgical partners in the O.R.
  • Michael J. Fox has always spoken publicly about having Parkinson’s disease.

Here’s a slideshow version introducing the class of 2020.

The List was compiled to identify both the common ground that teachers and students share, and the mine fields of misunderstanding that seem to grow wider with every forgotten reference to the Berlin Wall or Monica Lewinsky.

Enjoy!

Remembering My Father, Celebrating Book Lover’s Day

Tuesday August 9 would have been my father’s 89th birthday.

It’s also Book Lover’s Day.

Those two seemingly incongruent circumstances actually have a powerful connection for me.

After suffering a major stroke on February 10, 2012, my father passed away on February 25. By the time I was able to get back to Tennessee to see him, he had lost motor functions and speech capacity. Over the few days I was there, the slow but steady decline continued.

I had last seen him during the Christmas holidays. While there, I spent some time alone at home with him. After suffering a series of strokes over the past several years, he could no longer read – but the legacy of his reading lines the bookshelves all over my boyhood home. In the quiet hours when everyone was asleep, I scanned the shelves and remembered hearing him talk about this book or that one. I pulled a few off the shelf, and opening them, was instantly transported back in time to a conversation about the subject, or to memories of the event itself.

I’ve been a reader of books since, well, before I can remember. My father was an avid reader, and he passed that passion along to me at an early age. Even though he worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, he often spent several hours reading at night. He insisted my mother take my brother and me to the library in the next town and check out books – every two weeks. I would get the maximum number of books, take them home, and read them – usually in the first day or two. Then it would be an impatient wait till the next library trip.

Reading is a passion I treasure, and one that I am thankful instilled in me by my father.

Tomorrow it will be Book Lover’s Day – not an official holiday but one I eagerly celebrate. Book reading is a great hobby. It’s an important one, too. Employers look for it on resumes. Reading is educational, informative, and relaxing. It makes us both smarter, and happier people.

Book Lovers Day is a great day to celebrate. Just grab an interesting book, find a quiet, cozy place, and crack open the cover. Celebrating Book Lovers Day in August is pleasurable on the deck, under a shady tree, poolside, or in a cozy hammock. If you fall asleep while reading, that’s okay. It’s all part of the relaxing benefits of being a book lover.

I’m also celebrating this Book Lover’s Day as a part of my vocation – Vision Room Curator and Digital Engagement Leader at Auxano. My role requires me to read – a lot – and then write book summaries, Tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs about what I’m reading. During a recent consultation with a client, I was able to pull a dozen book titles off the top of my head when asked for recommendations on books for leadership development. That’s part of the benefit of reading!

I love my job!

Here’s an example:

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I call these my SUMS Remix Book Towers. These towers contain 143 books, representing 48 issues, one published every two weeks. The format of SUMS Remix is simple: one problem statement faced by churched leaders, 3 brief excepts form books that provide a solution to the problem, and ready-to-use applications for leaders to try out immediately.

We’re working on big news with SUMS Remix, but that will have to wait for another day.

Until then, on the eve of Book Lover’s Day, and in memory of my father, I’m trying to emulate Thomas Edison, who believed that voracious reading was the key to self-improvement. He read books on a remarkable range of subjects to address his endless queries. As Edison noted, “I didn’t read a few books, I read the library.”


If you want to know more about my dad, here is the eulogy I gave at his funeral. After the funeral, while my sons and I were moving some things around his gas station and I discovered one reason I am so passionate about guest services. And read this post to find out why readers are leaders.

How are you celebrating Book Lover’s Day?

Clarity is a Prerequisite for Compelling Leadership

Bob Johansen, author of “Leaders Make the Future”, states that clarity is one of ten leadership skills that leaders will need in the upcoming times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Here’s a brief recap on clarity:

  • Clarity requires inner strength and discipline: leaders, even when immersed in a world of ambiguity and confusion, emerge with forward momentum.
  • Clarity requires great self-knowledge: leaders must first understand who they are becoming, and how to get there, before leading others.
  • Clarity requires external engagement: leaders communicate with inspiration and a call to action that attracts others to follow.
  • Clarity requires flexibility: leaders are clear about their destination, but flexible about the journey.

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Leaders understand why people crave simple and easy answers, but should provide clarity without introducing false hope. Navigating the maze between hope and hopelessness, leaders with clarity will find a way out.

How are you relentlessly pursuing clarity in your leadership role?

Generosity for Everyone

a guest post from Todd McMichen, Auxano’s Chief Campaign Officer

It has been an exciting summer around my house. I have had the privilege of watching my college daughter volunteer at the local children’s hospital as a patient pal. My wife has taken time out of her busy realty business to serve a family that has been through a pretty big crisis. My son, who is about to graduate college, is dreaming of how he can impact the future lives of others and benefit his local church. I’ve texted our family giving to our local church, helped another family meet a need, and touched a few buttons on an APP donating to a local charity. It is just pretty normal stuff, nothing exceptional, just moments of generosity from everyone.

No matter how old we are or how much we earn, everyone can live generously. Let’s look at a few examples in the Bible for inspiration. I am first drawn to the boy with the fishes and loaves. While I am not sure how old he is, he appears to be old enough to travel to town and take care of a chore for his family. He probably knows the value of money and certainly of food. Then Jesus and His disciples come along asking if they can use his resources to help others. I don’t think the boy was wrestled to the ground and had his groceries taken. I think he gave them willingly, but had no clue what was about to happen. I wonder if it turned out to be the best day of his life. He probably got home late, couldn’t wait to tell mom, and bragged to all his friends. I bet it left him pretty eager to go to town again looking forward to his next giving adventure.

Then I want to jump to the other end of the spectrum. It’s the poor widow who gave all she had. I would imagine in the modern church if a poor widow showed up at her pastor’s office wanting to give all she had, her gift may very well be declined. Her pastor wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings, but she needs her resources more than the church does. Actually, the church has a Benevolence Fund she could benefit from. I love that neither Jesus nor the poor widow were concerned about what the future holds regarding her financial needs. Jesus was more than willing to accept her gift and she was more than willing to give it.

Of course, there was the rich young ruler who had more than enough. Jesus asked him to do as the poor widow did and give everything, but he refused. Pretty interesting that a young boy gives all he had one day and a poor widow gives all she has on another day. Evidently generosity is for everyone and it has nothing to do with the amount of resources you possess or how old you are.

Now I am thinking of Zaccheus and Barnabas, two very successful men in the prime of their earning careers. While I am not sure how long Barnabas has been a believer, I do know that he is way ahead of Zaccheus. Zaccheus isn’t even a believer when his story begins, but by the end of it he is living extravagant generosity. Barnabas actually surrenders an entire piece of property he owns, and gives it to the church to distribute the resources no strings attached.

Here are some things we can learn from a few ordinary people from the Bible who on random days decided to be giving:

  1. Giving is for everyone regardless of your age.
  2. Giving is for everyone regardless of your net worth.
  3. Giving is for everyone regardless of how strong your faith is.
  4. Giving is for everyone regardless of what has been previously planned in your life.
  5. Giving is indeed for everyone.

Now, I do know giving can be hard at times. It is not always top of mind. I think everyone would agree that giving is good both personally and for the world at large. Just imagine what life would be like if everyone lived just a little bit more generously everyday?

The Bible also contains real stories of our struggles with being a giving person. You actually do not have to travel very far in the Bible to be captured by the story of Cain and Abel. Both gave. One got it right and the other had some learning to do. We have already mentioned the rich young ruler who just couldn’t do it. Then when I shared about Barnabas, you may have been inclined to think of Annanias and Sapphira. So while giving is for everyone we all struggle with how to be both willing and joyful givers at times. So maybe we should add a few more principles.

  1. Giving is for everyone even though we all fail at it at times.
  2. Everyone can learn to be better at living generously.
  3. The more generous we all are the better our world is.

As you may have already guessed, I am pretty passionate about generosity. If you are interested in learning more then you may want to check out our latest resource. I had the privilege of partnering with the highly skilled curriculum team at LifeWay and we put together Generous Life resources. We took 10 Bible heroes and unpacked five different types of givers helping all ages develop their own growth plan. It contains five sermon outlines, with accompanying small group leader guides for all ages. Yes, all ages are included. There is even a weekly family devotion to do in the home.

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The Generous Life is not the stuff of super heroes or mega saints. It is a great way to live for normal people. Generosity is indeed for everyone, so let’s all join the journey of getting a little better at it each day.

 

How to Make Your Daily Routine Build Dynamic Relationships

In 1982 a book called In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman was published. Even though it was a business book, it made quite a hit in my seminary classes as well. (Way back when, even before it became the standard practice it is today, Ralph Hardee had us reading business books!)

One of the most important lessons of that book then, and still important today, is the idea of MBWA, or Managing by Wandering Around.

With MBWA, “what you see is what you get.”

Peters, in his book The Little BIG Things, added these thoughts about MBWA:

  • Get out of your office!
  • Unplug your laptop!
  • Put your smartphone in the drawer!
  • Chat up anybody whose path you cross…especially if they are not among your normal chatees.
  • Go strolling in parts of the organization (or your neighborhood) where you normally don’t stroll.
  • Slow down.
  • Stop.
  • Chat.

There is a lot of value in putting “wandering” on your permanent formal agenda. It may sound counterintuitive, but “aimless wandering” requires strict discipline. We all fall into ruts, even in our wanderings. Same route. Same people. Same time of day. Etc. Etc. Etc. Somehow you’ve got to introduce spontaneity.

Make a pledge to “just wander” at least a half-hour each day. You’ll be amazed at what happens when you come back to the pile of work on your desk or the files open on your screen.

A podcast by Lee Cockerell, former Executive VP for Operations at Walt Disney World, put this into perspective. Before he came to Disney, he was a general manager for Marriott hotels. He made it his practice to walk every floor of his multi-story hotel 3 times per day. This allowed him to see and be seen by all three shifts. It also allowed his team to become comfortable enough to engage in conversations, and bring matters to his attention. This in turn instilled a sense of purpose and value to each employee.

This principle applies to ChurchWorld, too. I’m fortunate, as I get to see it in action every week at the Lake Norman Campus of Elevation Church in Charlotte. Our Campus Pastor, Matthew Drew, and the rest of the staff, Chad, Brennen, and Nicole, make it a part of their weekend routine. It’s not scheduled, but they can be seen circulating outside the entrance, talking with Guests and team members. You see them on the sidewalk between the building and the parking lot, smiling and welcoming everyone they see. On occasion, they even venture into the parking lots, just to check things out.

There’s plenty for them to “do” inside, but they realize the value of connecting with as many people as possible – even if only for a moment – each and every weekend.

They have refined MBWA to LBWA…

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Are you the senior leader on your team? When was the last time you walked the front lines?

What are you waiting for?

How Environmental Immersion Leads to Creative Inspiration

One can be inspired by research as well as immersed in it for inspiration.  Rhonda Counts, Show Producer, Walt Disney Imagineering Florida

How you do research is dependent upon where you are in the process. Disney’s Imagineers, value the story’s intent and the importance of being surrounded with or immersed in the story’s environment.

Here’s an example from one of my current projects:

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As you can see, there’s a definite pirate’s theme going on in part of my office. It’s both from previous work and work in process. In 2014-2015, I used the theme of the Pirates of the Caribbean storyline to develop training resources and presentations in the area of Guest Experiences. Specifically, I created a tool – the Guest Experience Compass. And how better to demonstrate it, than using Jack Sparrow’s compass? I also created the Guest Experience Code – and based it on the storyline of the Pirates Code. Of course, both of these tools had to be introduced and used by a pirate – the Navigator – in a fully immersive learning environment.

Currently, I am working on developing new Guest Experience tools that will be available next spring – around the time that Pirates of the Caribbean 5 – Dead Men Tell No Tales – hits the theaters.

Then there’s the rest of my office…

DisneyImmersion

It’s no secret that I am a Disney fanatic of the first degree! I had an early start in the 60s, both from watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” and benefiting from my father, who as a Gulf gasoline dealer received many promotional tie-ins from Disney movies.

Anchored by a library of over 120 books (and growing!), I am literally immersed in all things Disney. As I research and work on various projects – especially Guest Experiences – I find great inspiration through the many resources at hand. My immersion is not limited to the visual and tactile – at any given time, the soundtrack of a Disney movie, or the background music from one of Disney’s theme parks can be heard.

Here’s how Disney Imagineers recommend immersion into an environment:

Select a project that you want to immerse yourself in. Make a list of all the elements of the project and find samples (the larger the better) that represent these elements. Find a place in your surroundings to display the samples so you can immerse yourself in them.

For example, if you wanted to fix up a vintage car, surround yourself with large detailed pictures of its original interior and exterior, very large color samples for its seat cushions, dashboard, etc., and exterior paint job, pictures of various locations you wold drive to, and of course, spray the space with new car scent.

Research leads to inspiration.


part of a series of ideas to help shape and tone your creative muscles

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

written by The Disney Imagineers

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