How do you generate creativity in teams and individuals? What can you do to stop smart people from making decisions that take your company off the rails? How do you sustain success without becoming formulaic and stale?
Pixar boss Ed Catmull constantly recycles these questions to keep his multi-award winning business at the cutting edge of the movie industry.
The company provides rich pickings for students of business management; its staff have no contracts, stability is not a goal and failure, while not exactly welcomed, is recognized as a consequence of trying to do something new.
It has the formula for success bottled and corked. How does the leadership team do it? And, more importantly, how do they keep doing it?
It certainly hasn’t been an overnight success and Catmull acknowledges the debt owed to Steve Jobs who kept the company going in the early days by pumping in more than $50m of his own money.
Even Jobs’ enthusiasm had limits, he recalls, and cites how he tried to sell Pixar on three occasions, including once to Microsoft who offered $90m when he was seeking $120m. Who knows what the outcome might have been had that deal gone through?
It was Toy Story that provided the company’s breakthrough moment and subsequent hits like hit Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, and A Bug’s Life are now as deeply implanted in popular culture as were the Disney classics that were the inspiration for Catmull to try making computer-animated movies himself.
Bizarrely, it was the very success of Toy Story that opened Catmull’s eyes to a deep rift in the company – one that challenged his management style, provoked a period of deep introspection and became the catalyst for the rejuvenation of his career.
While gearing up for the company’s second film, A Bug’s Life, he learned that those who had worked on Toy Story had found clashes between the creative and production departments to be “a nightmare” and were reluctant to sign on to work on another film at Pixar.
Production departments tasked with making sure the movie was delivered on time and on budget were seen by artists and technical staff as interfering micromanagers and were characterized as so much sand in the gears.
“I was floored. How had we missed this? My door had always been open!” says Catmull.
The answer is codified in one of his guiding principles: “The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.”
It’s hardly the stuff of bumper sticker wisdom but it is the distillation of a much deeper period of contemplation about why, over a five-year period, not one production manager had come forward to express anger at the internal conflicts.
In the world of film, crew members who complained tended not to get future work so people simply kept their mouths shut. There was also a sense that they were involved in a groundbreaking project and the good parts outweighed the bad so it was worth putting up with.
As he explored the issue further he also came to understand that hidden fears course through all businesses breaking new ground and that: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”
By bringing down barriers that forced staff to go through “proper channels” first, Catmull unleashed a wave of change that brought people together and spurred action. Open communication helped resolve production snags, gave individuals a greater sense of responsibility and bolstered their sense of a unified purpose.
At the same time, he also recognized that “a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline could destroy itself if left unchecked” so he made changes that reinforced his notion of work-life balance being good for employees and good for the company.
But more than anything else it was his requirement for absolute candor from staff that laid the foundation on which the culture of creativity is built.
Through regular Brainstrust meetings, Pixar’s people are charged with rooting out mediocrity and driving excellence, a process that is simple enough: Put smart, passionate people in a room and get them to thrash out problems in an atmosphere that requires frank exchanges of views.
The hard part is managing the dynamics that go with the gatherings, keeping the focus on the end product, not on personalities, and the need for constant vigilance to make the discussions effective.
At the core of Catmull’s business philosophy is his belief that trust cannot exist without candor and that without trust, creative collaboration is impossible.
“You can’t eliminate the blocks to candor once and for all. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, or retaliating or being retaliated against – they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think they’ve been vanquished. And when they do, you must address them squarely.”
There are, of course, a great many other components in Pixar’s success story, such as:
- Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
- It is not a manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.
- The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.
But it’s careful listening, open communications and an atmosphere that encourages relentless improvement that shapes Pixar’s template for success.