In isolation, good ideas alone are not enough to produce something great. The right people are what make ideas work. Read on to learn about how Pixar used that principle as the basis of its amazing creative culture.
“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”
In January 2006, Disney announced it would spend $7.4 billion to buy its “cousin” Pixar Animation Studios. Many wondered about the fate of Disney Animation Studios itself – would Disney shut down the division that forged its identity, but had stagnated since its success in the early 1990s with films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast? Would it leave hand-drawn animation behind in favor of computer animation?
Within months, the question was settled. Disney CEO Bob Iger named Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull to head Disney Animation, and the duo decided to leave the divisions separate and autonomous.
The decision played out brilliantly. Not only has Pixar continued to release hits like Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Disney Animation recently released the best-selling animated movie of all time – Frozen – on the heels of its other well-received animated films, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled.
This kind of success seemed far from reality in 1986 when Steve Jobs decided to purchase a small, struggling division of Lucasfilm with one product: the Pixar Image Computer. As Catmull explains in his book Creativity Inc.:
From the outside, Pixar probably looked like your typical Silicon Valley startup. On the inside, however, we were anything but. Steve Jobs had never manufactured or marketed a high-end machine before, so he had neither the experience nor the intuition about how to do so. We had no sales people and no marketing people and no idea where to find them. Steve, Alvy Ray Smith, John Lasseter, me—none of us knew the first thing about how to run the kind of business we had just started. We were drowning.
By 1990, the team had realized Pixar’s future was not in selling machines, but selling art. Still, it was a tough time. Even as Pixar produced computer-animated TV ads and shorts, the company was losing too much money. Jobs tried to sell it more than once – luckily, without success.
Pixar caught its first break in 1991 when Disney’s Jeff Katzenberg asked the company to produce three computer-animated features, which Disney would distribute and own. (These would go on to become Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2.)
By the end of 1995, Pixar was a public company, and Toy Story a legitimate hit. Amid the success, Catmull had his first existential crisis as President of Pixar Animation:
For twenty years, my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that goal had been reached, I had what I can only describe as a hollow, lost feeling. As a manager, I felt a troubling lack of purpose. Now what? The thing that had replaced it seemed to be the act of running a company, which was more than enough to keep me busy, but it wasn’t special. Pixar was now public and successful, yet there was something unsatisfying about the prospect of merely keeping it running. It took a serious and unexpected problem to give me a new sense of mission.
Catmull realized that although it had put out a great film, Pixar had a large group of employees who were reluctant to sign on for a second project. With the creative team behind Toy Story being given tremendous resources and status, the production team – responsible for executing thousands of movie-making details – felt marginalized.
In the process of solving his organizational problem, Catmull realized a new purpose: Fostering a sustainable organizational culture.
As I saw it, our mandate was to foster a culture that would seek to keep our sightlines clear, even as we accepted that we were often trying to engage with and fix what we could not see. My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. This sounds like a lofty goal, but it was there for all of us from the beginning. We were blessed with a remarkable group of employees who valued change, risk, and the unknown and who wanted to rethink how we create. How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way? That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.
From there, Creativity, Inc. explores the process of developing the culture envisioned in his post-Toy Story hangover. Given his success at Pixar, and then Disney, some of the key points are worth examining.
In the end, it’s about people, not ideas.
If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.
Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.
Solicit criticism from a trusted group:
I want to stress that you don’t have to work at Pixar to create a Braintrust. Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.
Here are the qualifications required: 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.
Failure is necessary for creative work:
Says [Director] Andrew [Stanton]: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”
Even though people in our offices have heard Andrew say this repeatedly, many still miss the point. They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure if a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by a desire to avoid it.
Protect the New:
When I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched—and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to see it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.
Conflict is Essential to Creative Progress
As director Brad Bird sees it, every creative organization—be it an animation studio or a record label—is an ecosystem. “You need all the seasons,” he says. “You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it does’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.”
Creativity Inc. is an engaging look inside the creativity engine at Pixar.