Learning from Pixar

As a design manager I’m constantly looking for good sources of advice on the challenges I face, but in a sea of corporate textbooks it’s difficult to find meaningful guidance for a creative environment. So, when one of my teammates referred to Creativity, Inc. as the best book on creative culture he’d ever read I immediately ordered a copy. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull is the story of Pixar Animation Studios from the truly thoughtful perspective of their management and leadership philosophies. Capturing everything I learned from this book would involve writing another but I wanted to share five of the lessons that resonated most in the context of my own team.

1 . Managing Isn’t Easy

Who knew, right? It should be a given that leading is hard but the best managers I know give the impression they were born with it and the poor ones just appear to lack the personality. In either case it seems more like a natural ability (or inability) than a learned skill. I’m sure many Pixar employees consider Catmull a natural leader but he was honest about his initial shortcomings in the book.

In the early days of the company Catmull jumped on the pricing advice of other executives. Being unsure of himself, it turned out to be a mistake born from “seeking simple answers to complex questions”. Resolving problems and choosing a course of action usually require some experience and deeper consideration. Maybe that’s common sense but it’s easy to forget when others make it look easy, and quick fixes are seductive.

Steve Jobs, who Catmull spoke of him in glowing terms, is often considered one of the most intuitive leaders the business world has ever known but even he tripped up occasionally. When he licensed NeXT software to IBM he seemed to play all his cards correctly, but in reality the terms created bad feeling. Catmull relayed how Jobs learned from the experience and that over time he “became fairer and wiser, and his understanding of partnership deepened”. I’m sure good intuitions give you a head start but it’s reassuring to hear that even great leaders are constantly learning.

2 . Build the Right Team or Nothing Else Matters

The first time I hired someone the process felt like a full time job. Reading resumes, reviewing portfolios and screening candidates was overwhelming and exhausting. There were so many variables and I felt the weight of getting it right, but I was wrestling with another concern too. More than one person advised me, ‘hire someone better than you’, but it’s human nature to feel a little threatened by that.

In his first hire Catmull recalled the same uneasiness as an “instinctual twinge”. Thankfully we both ignored it and learned, as he said, “the obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel and generally make your company — and, by extension, you — look better.” The validation was nice but it’s not always possible to hire people with the track record you need to make that call, so what then?

Catmull had advice for that situation too, suggesting, “Give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.” These two approaches have helped me build a great team of designers with different levels of experience, but I also learned they’re easier to follow under ideal circumstances. When you’re in growth mode and the work is piling up it can be tempting to just fill a position, so maybe the most important advice is to remember why it’s so critical to be diligent and put the best people in place.

“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea”, Catmull explained. “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.” Essentially, if you don’t do your job when building a team, you can’t expect them to do their job when they they join it.

3. It’s Your Responsibility to Establish the Right Environment for Your Team

I wasn’t naive enough to think that hiring the right blend of talented people would mean time to sit back and let the results role in. I knew there were all kinds of challenges ahead, but one of the biggest pain points I’ve seen in my career has been any kind of design review. Whenever you ask people to exercise their creativity before opening themselves to feedback it’s a potential recipe for disaster. They can take things personally, doubt themselves, force their opinion, or fail to speak up. But a design team is only a team when they leverage their collective ideas and I worried about how to nurture that. Catmull knew how critical this was too and said, “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.”

Maybe the first challenge is getting people to speak up, and sometimes that means coaxing opinions out of them. “There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment.” said Catmull. “Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them.” He goes on to suggest framing feedback as candor rather than honesty because it sounds less like something they’ll suffer repercussions from. To be honest, that seemed like semantics rather than a game-changer to me, but every little helps. The more important part is being receptive to feedback in the first place.

The idea of constructive criticism and focusing on the problem, not the person, are not radical, but they’re tougher than you’d think to achieve. Catmull said, “Candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of the things that don’t work.” Pixar’s solution for this is a regular forum known as ‘The Braintrust’. During the making of a movie periodic Braintrust meetings are held to identify and solve problems with the script in an environment where straight talk is nurtured.

During Braintrust meetings team members challenge anything they think could be improved and throw out lots of solutions. But critically, the director has the autonomy to use (or not use) feedback as he sees fit. “The Braintrust has no authority.” Catmull wrote. “This is crucial: The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback.” And he suggested the format can be used by any creative team. As a manager I’ll admit it’s sometimes hard to take my hands off those reins but that’s why you build a team in the first place.

4. Failure is an Essential Part of the Process

The benefit of a nurturing environment within your team is that you work through problems together, but that doesn’t mean eliminating failure. I know that my personality type, like many others’, is driven by the desire to avoid mistakes, but I’ve learned that they’re not only an essential part of the creative process but that leaders must show that failure isn’t something to be feared. “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all.” explained Catmull, “They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them we’d have no originality).”

It makes sense in theory, but most people aren’t naturally wired that way. We like to plan ahead and show our best work. Basking in the glow of success is much more fun than publicly tripping up so design teams need to remember that, as Catmull said, “The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction.” Essentially, mistakes may be necessary, but so is the ability to move past them, and that’s where the manager can help.

Catmull suggests two techniques to embrace mistakes and the first is to account for them in the process. Showing your work early and often will allow mistakes to be identified and resolved before they become a bigger deal. The second techniques is harder and it involves building trust. He wrote, “It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” They can do that by showing that creating an environment where fear doesn’t come hand-in-hand with fear. Unfortunately that’s not easy, but Catmull said, “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions–and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.”

5 . Research is the Difference Between Craft and Artistry

Lots of designers will identify with this process: collect a bunch of inspiration, assemble it into moodboards, pick a direction, and create something new from the pieces. More often than not it’s a serviceable solution to produce a design, but, as Catmull said, “When filmmakers … or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.”

Not every design project can be a masterpiece, and not every design can achieve the prestige of a Pixar movie, but surely it’s worth shooting for the stars when you have the opportunity. So how can you elevate the craft and make sure it’s not derivative, especially when you’re producing it to order?

Catmull suggests authenticity, fueled by research: “Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspirations. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.” That’s hard when you don’t know what you’re looking for but breaking out of the design blogs and thinking about the user or industry in question is more likely to produce something meaningful and original.

I encourage everyone who works or manages in a creative environment to read Creativity, Inc. I promise you won’t be disappointed.