Learning from Pixar: Deep Beliefs, Hard Truths, and Creative Magic
It would seem that more than any other current organization that is deemed “innovative,” Pixar is referred to in more business presentations and articles than any other – regardless of industry. And well it should be given its unique combination of business and creative achievement. But companies, both large and small, should make sure that they first understand Pixar’s underlying beliefs and values, before they run off and try to apply the various presenters’ lists of the company’s best practices. Why? Applying techniques that don’t have their roots in values deeply burned into the organization’s core DNA, have little chance of working.
The ideas in this post are informed by a number of talks and interviews with Pixar executives and creative talent including Ed Catmull, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton. All of these are listed and linked to at the end of this post for reference, and quite frankly, make for very enjoyable and entertaining viewing.
Pixar appears to have three critical belief areas that describe (1) why an organization should ever undertake a project, (2) the “physics” of innovation and creativity that rule the process, and (3) the primacy of the very human resources that need to be brought to bear to make the ideas uniquely real.
(1) THE WHY: The motivation and underlying truth for any undertaking.
That which provides the genesis for a venture must be something over which the team has some control via their individual talents, collaborative actions and relationships. It needs to provide reward to the heart and head throughout the process - the pocket is a somewhat less controlled result at the end.
- You shouldn’t do anything unless you think you can make it great.
- Making money can’t be the focus. Making money is a by-product of doing something great.
From the Pixar Team:
“It seems counterintuitive, but for imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.” – Brad Bird
“The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved.” – Brad Bird
(2) THE HOW: The basic physics of innovation and creativity that power the process.
To head-off the development of an insular NIH culture bounded by past successes, Director Brad Bird was brought into Pixar to stir things up and provide a different perspective. He did just that in seeking out "the black sheep who have another way of doing things" to form the team to do "the impossible" on the film "The Incredibles." Writer/director Andrew Stanton has been around the block on numerous Pixar films and knows from experience that: " I won't get it right the first time. But I'll get it wrong really soon, really quickly." But he knows that he works within an organization that understands the marriage of originality and uncertainty, that supports a process "where they don’t give up on us after our 15th try and it's still not working .... (in) hopes that the 16th try will get it.”
- Innovation can’t happen in a vacuum.
- To be creatively original, you have to accept uncertainty and being uncomfortable.
From the Pixar team:
“Everything is new and original. And therefore our way of dealing with and solving the problems has got to be original. So the secret is we have to keep on digging deeper and deeper and knowing that we’re always missing something that’s important.” – Ed Catmull
“We knew after a few successes that the enemy was us, and that our biggest fear was complacency - that we would think that we had it figured out.” – Andrew Stanton
(3) THE WHO: The primacy of people over things.
In his papers and presentations, Ed Catmull talks at length about the beliefs that people are more important than ideas (the story behind the making of “Toy Story 2” illustrates this), and that it is management’s job to construct environments for those people that will nurture trusting peer relationships between different disciplines in order to set the stage to unleash creative processes that also make learning from failure possible.
- Companies are communities of diverse people and community matters.
- Talented people are more important than good ideas (and “interested” people are more important than “interesting” people.)
- Management’s main job is not to prevent people’s failure, but to help them recover when failure inevitably occurs.
From the Pixar team:
“I would say that involved people make for better innovation. Passionate involvement can make you happy sometimes, and miserable other times. You want people to be involved and engaged. Involved people can be quiet, loud, or anything in-between—what they have in common is a restless, probing nature: “I want to get to the problem. There’s something I want to do.” If you had thermal glasses, you could see heat coming off them.” – Brad Bird
“You’re constantly morphing it (teams at Pixar) on the micro and macro level to maximize the people you are working with, and the chemistries you start to see and ignite between certain groups. You’re always trying to maximize the potential of who you have.” – Andrew Stanton
“There’s always some crisis ... And the trick is to recognize when that crisis happens… Human organizations are inherently unstable. They will fall over, and you have to work to keep them upright … You have to look for the hard truths.” – Ed Catmull
So if you are an organization looking for practices to increase your chances and mitigate the risks around producing either technical or creative breakthroughs, those that Pixar has developed through years of learning are a good place to start - but only if you truly understand, believe and embrace the values that underpin them.
Video of Pixar talk at Computer History Museum (Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith and others) ; “Pixar: A Human Story of Computer Animation” (note that the first 50 minutes focuses on the technology history, while the thread of the chemistry of the organization starts around 56 minutes in).
Video of Ed Catmull at Stanford: “Keep Your Crises Small”
Transcript of “Keep Your Crises Small”
"How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" by Ed Catmulll in HBR
HBR IdeaCast: Pixar's Collective Genius (Audio Podcast)
Brad Bird Interview in McKinsey Quarterly (written by Hayagreeva Rao, Robert Sutton, and Allen P. Webb)
GigaOm post that references the Brad Bird interview in McKinsey
“Pixar’s Incredible Culture” in IBS Center for Management Research
"What Google Could Learn from Pixar” by Peter Sims in HBR Blog
Book: The Pixar Touch (print as well as audio, iPad and Kindle versions)