Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Pixar Way

BPlans is an online small business planning resource. They collected 37 choice quotes from Creativity Inc. that demonstrate how to develop and maintain a creative company, and paired them with images from Pixar's award-winning films and two upcoming features (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur).

"We believe that ideas only become great when they are challenged and tested."

"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."

"Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close."

"Mistakes aren't a necessary evil. They aren't evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new."

"To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning."

"For leaders especially, this strategy - trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it - dooms you to fail."

"To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail."

"There are two parts to any failure: There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is this second part that we control."

"A manager's default mode should not be secrecy."

"You employees are smart; that's why you hired them. So treat them that way."

"Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people's intentions are good and that they want to solve problems."

"Our job is to protect our [new ideas] from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new."

"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."

"Making something great is the goal."

"The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new - of the future, not the past - must be a conscious effort."

"It's folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn't want to. There is no growth or success without change."

"Randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised."

"If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality."

"We must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses."

"Change is inevitable... Working with change is what creativity is about."

"If you don't try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead."

"Acknowledging what you can't see... Helps promote flexibility."

"The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty."

 Pixar Way.025
"I believe that we all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively. What stands in our way are these hidden barriers - the misconceptions and assumptions that impede us without our knowing it."

 Pixar Way.026
"I believe that you should not be required to justify everything. We must always leave the door open for the unexpected."

"The attempt to avoid failure makes failure more likely."

"Driving the train doesn't set its course. The real job is laying the track."

"In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle."

"Earning trust takes time; there's no shortcut to understanding that we really do rise and fall together."

"Easy isn't the goal. Quality is the goal."

"What is the point of hiring smart people if you don't empower them to fix what's broken?"

"There is nothing like a crisis to bring what ails a company to the surface."

"Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: 'How do we tap the brainpower of our people?'"

"It is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world."

"Real improvement comes from consistent rigor and participation."

"It is management's job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy - as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run."

"A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well."

Pixar's Creative Culture

One of the biggest buzzwords in today's business world is innovation. We hear how different companies claim to be centers of innovation and are pushing the limits of creativity. From a marketing perspective, it is a great way to sell your company as having a culture that inspires and accepts new ways of thinking. Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, is quoted in saying, "Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.... To ensure quality, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves." Pixar is a recognized leader in creating widely admired and profitable stories that have both inventive plotlines and emotional authenticity. In a case study of Pixar's culture of creativity, we will see how innovation can be obtained through the iterative problem-solving process of highly talented and collaborative teams.

Historical Theories
Over the last few years the debate on whether or not lone inventors are the source of breakthroughs has continued to evolve. The idea generation process goes through three basic phases: variation, selection, and retention. Data suggests that although individuals can't typically recognize the difference between good and bad ideas as well as groups, a group that generates ideas together won't produce as much variety. Hybrid teams that start as individuals and then come together for the last two phases have better average quality of ideas, quantity of ideas, and variance in quality of ideas.

Team dynamics also play a factor with the greater the diversity in a team, the more creative the results. Varied backgrounds of individuals will increase the collective knowledge of the group and allow for connections to be made across divisions of individual expertise. One theory is that ideas and knowledge exist because of the individuals whom make the necessary mental connections. Resulting from this hypothesis, the importance of individual talent is key to an organization's success. One study suggested that approximately 5% of all the employees in an organization create more than 50% of all the new ideas for a firm. In fact, who is leaving or joining the firm determines the culture which attracts, selects, and causes other people to remain in the firm. The research indicates that talent is the most important asset or resource a firm can acquire and cultivate.

Pixar's Growth
Pixar is a great example of a company that was able to have a core group of individuals establish a longstanding culture of creativity and innovation. Pixar was the realization of a dream of those few key members of being able to create impactful high-quality computer-animated films. Growth did not come without a few bumps along the way but mistakes were embraced and lessons were learned.

One of the key lessons regarding company culture is that job titles and a sense of hierarchy is counter to creativity. These labels in a company are important and necessary but when it comes to creativity and innovation, unhindered communication is essential and it is important that as the company grows that everyone is able to share their personal insights with candor. If individuals are afraid of providing negative feedback to a person in a position of authority then the hierarchy inhibited the process.

Another insight that Pixar observed in other companies were environments that hindered originality. Fully worked out and set-in-stone plans increased the chance of being unoriginal. No one ever achieved creative success by clinging to what used to work or following what others had done in the past. Companies have to embrace risk and randomness and reject fears of constant uncertainty and change. As Pixar grew, it worked to balance two competing concepts they named "Feeding the Beast" and "Ugly Babies." The first concept was one where success leads to a demand for more success and a need for increased output. These demands and needs continue to grow to the point that we are just trying to keep up with the appetite of creation and as a result, quality lessens across the board. "Ugly Babies" describes how new ideas may be ungainly and poorly defined but are the opposite of established and entrenched ideas. This type of new idea is exciting and needs time to cultivate and rework until it becomes something truly amazing. It was Pixar's commitment to quality that would keep it from falling to its own success and losing what made it special to being with: original storytelling.

An unexpected lesson that Pixar found was a result of an internship program. Initially, most groups were uninterested in the having to "babysit" young animators and programmers. When corporate announced that the cost came out of the company's budget and not individual departments this incentivized more groups to request the free labor. The unexpected result was that in having to teach others about their processes, they were able to see new ways in which they could improve and change them. This further expanded into a new university aspect of Pixar where employees would have classroom experiences and interactions where everyone would learn more about other roles and responsibilities in the company. These new situations allowed for people to not only gain respect for what others do but made them more comfortable to make mistakes and try new things which is key to a creative atmosphere.

Contracts had a similar effect but dealt more with receiving candid feedback. Pixar had seen that when producers or production managers had contracts in place, if there were areas that the studio could be improved they were less likely to share their feedback out of fear of being seen as someone who complains. If the manager had areas where they could improve, it was more simple for the studio to not renew their contract instead of taking the time provide them with the necessary changes that would have improved their performance. Pixar decided to instead remove the contract model all together and incentivize employees through providing them unprecedented amounts of creative control for projects.

Some barriers were established from the beginning of the company and only continued to grow with the studio as it expanded and eventually was acquired by Disney. A key barrier that was established early was to disallow the sharing of resources. Whether the project was a short, a full-length Pixar film, or a Disney film, there was no sharing of resources. The reason behind the decision was that in balancing freedom and structure, limits forced groups to find creative solutions when time was short or a particular effect was having issues rendering. Limits imply that you can't do everything you want so you must think of smarter ways to work and think. Pixar had adopted the "Toyota production line" model where employees at every level were given the freedom to solve problems themselves. They did not have to go through a hierarchical structure to find a solution. They didn't need to wait and find "the right way" to solve a problem but just solved problems.

Pixar's Team Dynamics
As seen throughout the company's history, the emphasis on quality, embracing the unknown, and trusting and empowering employees really works because of the kind of employees at Pixar. A common best practice is to hire smarter talented people to be the source of creativity. Pixar expands this belief by saying, "Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they'll either fix it or come up with something even better." The secret for Pixar is to focus more on having the right chemistry with the right team than having the right idea.

The dynamic of a team at Pixar is one of candor, safety, self-assessment, and protecting the new. They believe that conflict is essential to knowing if they have the best idea through testing it. If a team is given the tools and space to work on a story they are passionate about, they will be able to rework it through an iterative process until it finds its soul. People offer a multiplicity of viewpoints. Flexibility is demanded. Ideas are discussed and the storylines are ran through a microscope so thoroughly that it has been accepted that identifying with a project will hinder the creative problem-solving process at Pixar.

Mistakes are inevitable consequences of doing something new but the risks yield the highest rewards. This is why Pixar continues to push boundaries of technology and storytelling. A lot of these mistakes are teased out through the Braintrust at Pixar. The Braintrust is a group of smart, passionate people in a single room together, charged with identify and suggesting possible problem-solving approaches. This group is encouraged to be candid with each other which is essential. Candor leads to trust which leads to collaborative creativity. This group provides a director and producer lots of solutions in a short amount of time but does not prescribe any single idea. The choice of how to move forward is the sole responsibility of the original team. Not even the executive team can prescribe a specific course of action. This approach teaches everyone that we have incomplete work and everyone is free to make suggestions. It makes it safe to discuss and solve problems together.

Pixar's Culture
Pixar has been able to establish a culture of creativity because of the needs that are part of the process of creating original and impactful quality films. There is a need for balance. There is a need to make decisions at every level of the organization but also a need to admit fallibility. There is a need to feel that progress is being made. The focus is talent-centered cross-functional learning and collaboration. Pixar's culture has organizational support from every level, starting at the top. People are able to speak their minds and they trust each other that when they make mistakes that they will act to help solve them.

The hardest part of trying to define how Pixar has created their culture is it is iterative in its nature. It is constantly changing and adapting. One of their core principles is continuously asking questions and searching for understanding. If I was to attempt to provide a set of factors that would create a similar environment, these would include finding the best talent, loosening the controls, accepting risks and mistakes as part of the process, trusting our colleagues, and working to clear a path for them to succeed. Anton Ego, a character from Ratatouille, describes the scary truth behind innovation best when he says:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. Bu the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends...."