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:

Pixar16

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

 

With a 14 for 14 Record, Pixar’s Ed Catmull Has Some Advice Your Organization Needs to Hear

A 14 for 14 record would be an impressive statistic for a baseball player batting in spring training, but when you apply that stat to Pixar’s box office hits, it becomes simply astounding.

With the release of Toy Story in 1995, culminating in last year’s Monsters University, Pixar has released 14 movies – and all 14 became No. 1 box office hits.

Interestingly enough, though, the president of Pixar says they all were not good – at first.

There’s got to be a lesson for ChurchWorld leaders in there!

A 2014 best-seller entitle Creativity, Inc. by Pixar President Ed Catmull was excerpted in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine (online version). It is a fascinating read, and I’m eagerly awaiting the book’s release.

Till then, here is Catmull giving 8 lessons on how to lead a creative organization:

Protect Creatives from the Organization – Accidentally, and without intending to, organizations smother creativity. The central problem is the stuff organizations put in place that blocks the natural abilities that are already there.

Cherish Your Defining Moment – and Then Find a New One – The work we did to turn around Toy Story 2 was a defining moment in Pixar history. But the bulk of people working at Pixar now didn’t live through that. Solving our newest problem today – these newer people are a part of it, and they will own that solution when they solve it right.

Save the Ugly Baby from the Hungry Beast – Every movie starts out as an ugly baby. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive and requires protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director’s ugly baby. At some point, it will have to grow up and change into something, because the beast is still there.

How to Balance Art and Commerce – With certain ideas, you can predict commercial success. So with a Toy Story 3 or a Cars 2 you know the idea is more likely to have financial success. But it you go down that path too far, you become creatively bankrupt because you’re trying to repeat yourself. So we also want to do things that are unlikely, that are harder to solve – like WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up.

Getting to Frozen: How the Disney Brain Trust Grew Up – When I became the head of Disney Animation, my starting point was to assume that the animation team already there intended to do the right thing, and it was my job to help them understand the Pixar process. It took over two years, but the Disney team learned they weren’t in competition with one another, but that their successes were built on each other’s. Frozen wasn’t an instant hit, but was built on the groundwork laid by Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph.

Why Things Will Always Go Wrong, Even at Pixar – It would be wrong to say that Disney is on the way up (with Frozen) and Pixar is on the way down (with the restart of Good Dinosaur). Just a few years ago the situations were reversed. Whenever we miss something, we analyze it to see what we missed. So we rethink the process and we change some things.

Why Real Risk Means Real Failures – People say they want to be in risky environments and do all kinds of exciting stuff. But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failures and mistakes. We only lose from this if we don’t respond to the failures.

Your Best Tool is a Genius – or a Disaster – There are only two tools that work almost all the time for effecting real change. The first is the presence of a visionary leader, but there just isn’t a large number of these folks. The second is an organization undergoing the right kind of crisis. Everything in between is people trying to do their best.

Excerpted from Fast Company’s April 2014 cover story and related articles about Pixar President Ed Catmull.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

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