Pixar: Great People > Great Ideas

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Which are more valuable: good ideas or good people?

I’ll let Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, share his own opinion before I dissect his thoughts:

“The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity.”

Developing complex products requires teams of people from different disciplines, with different sets of skills, to solve challenges together.

In much the same way as Xerox balances top-down process and bottom-up practice to enable customer service reps to share knowledge and perform at their highest capacity, Pixar achieves a balance of creative innovation and operational excellence from all employees involved in moviemaking.

Pixar has the organizational structure and the accompanying philosophy to support this sort of delivery of top-quality products.

If you reflect upon what Pixar does to create a culture of creativity, openness to learning, abundant resources, and embracing innovation (and risk), you can incorporate those same things to transform your company into an ultimate learning machine.

A History of Success

Pixar is a pioneer in the computer animation space. Toy Story (1995) was the world’s first computer-animated feature film and one of 26 to come from Pixar’s studios (four of which exist among the top 10 highest-grossing animated movies of all time).

Toy Story action figurines pose as their young owner leaves the house for school
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Image courtesy of unsplash.com

What’s more impressive is that all of Pixar’s stories, worlds, and characters “were created internally by [their] community of artists.” No outsourced movie ideas, no scavenged scripts.

The factors that Ed Catmull believes make Pixar successful are its uncompromising adherence to values and quality, its thoughtful practices for managing creative talent, and its systems for navigating risk. Above all, he emphasizes the importance of lasting relationships and community.

Reflecting upon the successful 2006 Disney-Pixar merger, Catmull shared his thoughts on building a sustainable creative organization in this article.

Collective Creativity

What does creativity mean to a creative behemoth like Pixar?

The creative spawn of an employee becomes a workable idea, the “high concept” of the movie.

This is surely not the last creative moment required. A movie is an amalgam of thousands of ideas coming from all directions. It’s a chaotic process of coalescing a story from a swirl of disjointed, creative outpouring.

It doesn’t matter if the idea starts out weak or incomplete. Comfort in the face of great uncertainty is essential. Pixar knows audiences want something new and memorable when they buy tickets to a movie. That’s why they sustain an environment that nurtures ideas and brings employees together to unleash creativity and collaborate.

“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.”

Executives then must “resist [their] natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks.” Originality comes at the sacrifice of certainty and comfort, but those are risks Pixar takes time and time again. This risk fosters inclusivity, strengthens work relationships, and projects an image of the creative community outward which attracts more talented, culture-fitted people.

Red sign on fence reads: USE AT OWN RISK
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Image courtesy of unsplash.com

Culture From Adversity

Catmull faced his first roadblock at Pixar when he appointed an inexperienced production team to take the lead on Toy Story 2 while the original Toy Story team worked on A Bug’s Life.

Storytelling proved burdensome. [Spoiler alert] at that stage of development it was too obvious Woody would end up back with Andy instead of being shipped to the toy museum in Japan.

Stagnation prompted Disney to encourage Pixar to go “direct to video” with the sequel, hinting that quality might take a major hit in exchange for lower costs and a risk-averse strategy.

But that didn’t sit right with Catmull or his team at large.

“…having two different standards of quality in the same studio was bad for our souls, and Disney readily agreed that the sequel should be a theatrical release.”

The team from A Bug’s Life finished their project and helped complete Toy Story 2 in a narrow 8-month timeframe. They worked at an unsustainable rate, but the project was done, and it went from mediocre to great.

They introduced Jessie: Woody’s cowgirl counterpart shares her origin story of abandonment by the little girl who once loved but inevitably outgrew her toy. Forlorn, Jessie wants to be sent to the toy museum. Woody, empathetic to this painful fact of aging, now has a real choice to make. The audience feels the truth in Woody’s internal conflict.

Jessie, Woody, and Bullseye the Horse sit together and watch TV
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Image courtesy of giphy.com

Remembering this chaotic success, Catmull remarks of people vs. ideas:

“If you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.”

People: 1 // Ideas: 0

Toy Story 2 set a precedent of excellence for Pixar. But how could they continue hitting the mark when their employees had to work tirelessly to barely meet deadlines?

Creatives in Control

The development department’s role changed after Toy Story 2. No longer responsible for generating new ideas, they began assembling small teams to help directors refine ideas to be put in front of senior filmmakers’ eyes for further approval.

Teams consist of directors, writers, artists, and storyboard people. The development department strategically places people in teams to assess social dynamics, problem-solving ability, and the group’s extent of collaboration rather than the quality of their idea output. Authority turns over to the team of creatives so as not to undermine the unique creative process that eventually unfolds.

People: 2 // Ideas: 0

It’s the director’s job to provide a unifying vision and directives for the team.

“Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone.”

While employees remain in their formal roles, leaders emerge, and command disseminates evenly throughout the teams.

A Culture of Peers

Beyond this method of putting power in the hands of teams to refine ideas, Pixar set up two other collaboration-based routines for employees to regularly exchange feedback and and share work in an egoless manner, for the benefit of operational excellence.

The Dailies

The Dailies are daily reviews. Colleagues share incomplete work with the entire animation crew and receive feedback periodically. This helps team members overcome shyness and keep from withholding “imperfect” work.

Employees convene with full notebooks for a Daily meeting
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Image courtesy of unsplash.com

The Dailies function as a space for the director to convene with the entire team at once, often. The frequent meetings and the emphasis on presenting work as-is confirm no one spends time doing things the director didn’t want in the first place.

This is a mechanism for encouraging teams to support each other and for dismantling the natural barriers that divide disciplines.

Brain Trust

When a project needs an overhaul, the director and producer bring the Brain Trust together to display the current status of the project.

What ensues is a two-hour open floor discussion with the objective of making the movie better. This means, pull no punches. Everyone leaves their ego at the door. The authority ultimately remains in the director’s hands, but this practice of relinquishing control allows them to fully consider the breadth of feedback they receive from the brain trust.

If a project has any major issues, here is where it will be dismantled or fixed. The Brain Trust can take mediocre ideas and make them great.

People: 3 // Ideas: 0

Pixar’s Operating Principles

It’s clear how Pixar has manufactured a tradition of creative excellence.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the 3 operating principles at the core of Pixar.

Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.

With the systems mentioned above in place, there is no need to navigate through bureaucratic levels of “proper reporting” at Pixar. It’s often the case for managers to be surprised by what their team presents during meetings.

Informality works because of how often people are put in the right environments to exchange thoughts and ideas. Problems are “almost by definition unseen” and this ubiquity of communication helps Pixar stay on top of them.

It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.

Simply put, Pixar is a companywide safe space for constructive criticism.

Submitting incomplete and imperfect work for review, leaving egos at the door during feedback sessions, and maintaining an attitude of unconditional positive regard for others and the project all help curate a safe environment.

The front gate of Pixar's headquarters reads: PIXAR STUDIOS
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Image courtesy of unsplash.com

Even the physical structure of the headquarters encourages companywide interaction. The cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes are all at the very center of the building.

We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.

In the spirit of innovation and reinvention, Pixar has picked up dozens of patents since its inception as a computer animation studio. Publishing research keeps Pixar connected with innovations happening outside the film industry and props a door open for finding top talent.

Employees can train and cross-train at Pixar University, with modules for advancing your career as well as extracurricular ones like yoga.

Keeping it All in Check

With all this hands-off creativity taking place, how does Pixar ensure it’s meeting key outcomes as a business? Catmull describes two ways to assess, calibrate, and ensure the functionality of all the hands-off creative systems Pixar set in place for its workforce.

Postmortems: people are naturally more inclined to talk about what went right after a project’s success, rather than what went wrong. People also tend to want to move on from long, arduous projects. Pixar deliberately changed the format of postmortems to present a healthy balance of positive and negative reflection and prevent teams from extracting the same lessons over and over again. Teams analyze data on their own progress during postmortems – measurement is still possible within creative organizations.

Fresh blood: Pixar encourages new hires to quickly become indispensable parts of processes. Executives speak at most orientation sessions to discuss mistakes and hard lessons learned to demonstrate to new employees that no one has it all figured out, and that it’s a collective effort to maintain a learning culture like Pixar’s.

Employees throughout the organization constantly seek out improvements and squash bugs that might negatively impact a project or the culture as a whole. Teams adhere to crystal clear values, participate in continuous collaboration, learn from routine postmortems, observe executives as they lead by example, and, most importantly, embrace the concept that good people matter more than good ideas.

These cultural hallmarks are what make a great learning culture. 

The animated Pixar logo shows an anthropomorphic lamp jumping on the letter "i" in Pixar
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Image courtesy of tenor.com

Catmull’s goal was to build a studio that “had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic…”

“But the ultimate test of whether John and I have achieved our goals is if Pixar and Disney are still producing animated films that touch world culture in a positive way long after we two, and our friends who founded and built Pixar with us, are gone.”

Ed Catmull stepped down from his role at Pixar in 2018. Given the legacy and the creative architecture he left behind, we have every reason to believe Pixar will continue to make magic through the power of collective creativity.

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