How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity & Innovation
David Snelling our Chief Strategy Officer and CTO worked next to Disney CEO, Bog Iger across all technology of Disney including Pixar, ESPN, and ABC during the making of Tangled. WeTransact implements collective creative and innovation practices of Pixar that are quite opposite many of today's current "standard"corporate/investment processes being employed in 2021. There's a huge waist of potential human capital contributions being lost everyday to old business equations that were designed to prioritize the mitigate risk at each step of a product's development vs a dynamically evolving human 1st innovation process. Read excerpts from The Harvard Business Review article below that speaks to how the Pixar method of creativity is leading their industry's innovations with this human first approach.
Many people believe that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, couldn’t disagree more. That notion, he says, is rooted in a misguided view of creativity that exaggerates the importance of the initial idea in developing an original product. And it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how to manage the large risks inherent in producing breakthroughs. In filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many inherently unforeseeable problems. The trick to fostering collective creativity, Catmull says, is threefold: Place the creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders (as opposed to corporate executives); build a culture and processes that encourage people to share their work-in-progress and support one another as peers; and dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines.
Mindful of the rise and fall of so many tech companies, Catmull has also sought ways to continually challenge Pixar’s assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy its culture. Clear values, constant communication, routine postmortems, and the regular injection of outsiders who will challenge the status quo are necessary but not enough to stay on the rails. Strong leadership is essential to make sure people don’t pay lip service to those standards. For example, Catmull comes to the orientation sessions for all new hires, where he talks about the mistakes Pixar has made so people don’t assume that just because the company is successful, everything it does is right.
Listen to Ed Catmull discuss managing creativity.
A few years ago, I had lunch with the head of a major motion picture studio, who declared that his central problem was not finding good people—it was finding good ideas. Since then, when giving talks, I’ve asked audiences whether they agree with him. Almost always there’s a 50/50 split, which has astounded me because I couldn’t disagree more with the studio executive. His belief is rooted in a misguided view of creativity that exaggerates the importance of the initial idea in creating an original product. And it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how to manage the large risks inherent in producing breakthroughs. The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity.
When it comes to producing breakthroughs, both technological and artistic, Pixar’s track record is unique. In the early 1990s, we were known as the leading technological pioneer in the field of computer animation. Our years of R&D culminated in the release of Toy Story in 1995, the world’s first computer-animated feature film. In the following 13 years, we have released eight other films (A Bug’s Life; Toy Story 2; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Cars; Ratatouille; and WALL·E), which also have been blockbusters. Unlike most other studios, we have never bought scripts or movie ideas from the outside. All of our stories, worlds, and characters were created internally by our community of artists. And in making these films, we have continued to push the technological boundaries of computer animation, securing dozens of patents in the process.
While I’m not foolish enough to predict that we will never have a flop, I don’t think our success is largely luck. Rather, I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible. Pixar is a community in the true sense of the word. We think that lasting relationships matter, and we share some basic beliefs: Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture. In the last two years, we’ve had a chance to test whether our principles and practices are transferable. After Pixar’s 2006 merger with the Walt Disney Company, its CEO, Bob Iger, asked me, chief creative officer John Lasseter, and other Pixar senior managers to help him revive Disney Animation Studios. The success of our efforts prompted me to share my thinking on how to build a sustainable creative organization.
What Is Creativity?
People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea: This is a movie about toys, or dinosaurs, or love, they’ll say. However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process that takes four to five years.
A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization. The leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the ones that fit into a coherent whole—that support the story—which is a very difficult task. It’s like an archaeological dig where you don’t know what you’re looking for or whether you will even find anything. The process is downright scary.
Pixar’s customers expect to see something new every time. That’s downright scary. But if Pixar’s executives aren’t always ... Then again, if we aren’t always at least a little scared, we’re not doing our job. We’re in a business whose customers want to see something new every time they go to the theater. This means we have to put ourselves at great risk. Our most recent film, WALL·E, is a robot love story set in a post-apocalyptic world full of trash. And our previous movie, Ratatouille, is about a French rat who aspires to be a chef. Talk about unexpected ideas! At the outset of making these movies, we simply didn’t know if they would work. However, since we’re supposed to offer something that isn’t obvious, we bought into somebody’s initial vision and took a chance.
To act in this fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new. That’s why you see so many movies that are so much alike. It also explains why a lot of films aren’t very good. If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails.
What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people! Contrary to what the studio head asserted at lunch that day, such people are not so easy to find.
As we built up an animation crew for Toy Story in the early 1990s, John used what he had learned from Disney and ILM to develop our daily review process. People show work in an incomplete state to the whole animation crew, and although the director makes decisions, everyone is encouraged to comment.
The brain trust.
This group consists of John and our eight directors (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brenda Chapman, Lee Unkrich, Gary Rydstrom, and Brad Lewis). When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group (and anyone else they think would be valuable) and show the current version of the work in progress. This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better. There’s no ego. Nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another. They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late. The problem-solving powers of this group are immense and inspirational to watch.
Getting Real Help.
Pixar’s brain trust of directors offers advice on works in progress. But the production’s leaders decide what to use and ...
After a session, it’s up to the director of the movie and his or her team to decide what to do with the advice; there are no mandatory notes, and the brain trust has no authority. This dynamic is crucial. It liberates the trust members, so they can give their unvarnished expert opinions, and it liberates the director to seek help and fully consider the advice. It took us a while to learn this. When we tried to export the brain trust model to our technical area, we found at first that it didn’t work. Eventually, I realized why: We had given these other review groups some authority. As soon as we said, “This is purely peers giving feedback to each other,” the dynamic changed, and the effectiveness of the review sessions dramatically improved.
This practice of working together as peers is core to our culture, and it’s not limited to our directors and producers. One example is our daily reviews, or “dailies,” a process for giving and getting constant feedback in a positive way that’s based on practices John observed at Disney and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Lucasfilm’s special-effects company.
At Disney, only a small senior group would look at daily animation work. Dennis Muren, ILM’s legendary visual-effects supervisor, broadened the participation to include his whole special-effects crew. (John, who joined my computer group at Lucas film after leaving Disney, participated in these sessions while we were creating computer-animated effects for Young Sherlock Holmes.)
Showing unfinished work each day liberates people to take risks and try new things because it doesn’t have to be ...
There are several benefits. First, once people get over the embarrassment of showing work still in progress, they become more creative. Second, the director or creative leads guiding the review process can communicate important points to the entire crew at the same time. Third, people learn from and inspire each other; a highly creative piece of animation will spark others to raise their game. Finally, there are no surprises at the end: When you’re done, you’re done. People’s overwhelming desire to make sure their work is “good” before they show it to others increases the possibility that their finished version won’t be what the director wants. The dailies process avoids such wasted efforts.
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