Leading creativity lessons from Pixar3

Leading creativity lessons from Pixar

Do you ever dream about what it would be like to work at Pixar or Disney? Do you wonder how you could help encourage a more creative atmosphere or create insane quality like the animation giants?

Here are a few tips from the leadership of Pixar, pulled from Ed Catmull’s book, “Creativity, Inc.” If you’re interested in reading more behind the scenes details about management at Pixar, I encourage you to check out the book.


Lesson 1) Have no idea what you’re doing? Don’t let that stop you.

Ed (the President of Pixar and Disney Animation) lets us in on a secret: the founders of Pixar didn’t know what they were doing when they started.

Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull were beginners at many things during their lives. It’s hard to think about famous industry leaders as ever being amateurs, but every successful person started out as a beginner at some point.

Ed finds himself the President of Pixar in 1986. Pixar started out as a hardware business, built around the Pixar Image Computer, which was a device used to combine live action film and special effect images. The technology was created by Ed’s computer division when he was still at Lucasfilm, but turned out to have applications for medical imaging, design prototyping, and image processing.

When George Lucas decided to sell Pixar, Ed found himself president of a new company, surrounded by a team of smart people, including Steve Jobs, Alvy Ray Smith, and John Lasseter, who at the time, didn’t have the experience and knowledge needed to run the business they found themselves in.

There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.

– Ed Catmull

Ed decided to gather information from multiple channels. He describes his quest to learn management techniques, the lack of actionable help he found in management books, and the conflicting advice he received from others. He explains the inspiration he found from other industries and the lessons and insights he learned over time as he figured out which techniques worked best for the unique company he was trying to build.

Application to daily life

Don’t let other people’s success intimidate you. They all started from the beginning, with no knowledge in their current field or problem. They most likely also felt overwhelmed. Find your footing by absorbing information from multiple sources and fields, surrounding yourself with smart people, as well as testing and reflecting frequently to find out which ideas will work best for your team and goals.


Lesson 2) Trust in people instead of the process

Ed talks about how he noticed that his team was latching on to phrases like “story is king” and “trust the process” as crutches. The guiding principles didn’t by themselves result in action and Ed believes they were actually hurting the team by encouraging a passive interaction. Ed prefers to focus on personal ownership of the work, self-discipline, and goals instead of idolizing any particular process.

The process either makes you or unmakes you.

– Brad Bird

Pixar realized that encouraging personal ownership rather than coasting required introspection, and fostering candor and regular feedback. They decided to set up sessions called the “Braintrust,” where directors and other leaders on a film gather in a room to share their work and give each other feedback. While everyone is encouraged to speak their mind, the director or person in charge of the change makes the decision about which feedback to incorporate.

Application to daily life

You’re probably using frameworks to improve your complex system. Like any environment, those terms may have become part of the jargon or end up dictating your process.

It’s easy to gravitate towards the latest process framework and to focus on either micromanaging it or coasting along. Try establishing your own version of “Braintrust” meetings with groups at any and all levels to break up the coasting and encourage people to constantly reflect, iterate, problem solve, and push each other.


Lesson 3) Balance “ugly babies” and “the Beast”

This was one of my favorite analogies from the book because it rings so true. There will always be pressures to satisfy the needs of the “Beast,” since most organizations need a constant stream of new material to generate revenues and support their business model. When the “Beast” takes over, the pressure to deliver higher quantity more quickly can sacrifice quality and originality.

In contrast, Ed calls new films “ugly babies.” At the beginning, they are awkward and incomplete. Over time and iterations, they’ll evolve into successful films but the original idea needs protecting to ever reach that state.

Ed describes the importance of maintaining a balance between “ugly babies” and “the Beast,”

The Beast is a glutton but also a valuable motivator. The Baby is so pure and unsullied, so full of potential, but it’s also needy and unpredictable and can keep you up at night. The key is for your Beast and your Babies to coexist peacefully, and that requires you to keep various forces in balance.

– Ed Catmull

Application to daily life

Conduct an audit. Look at how you and your team spend your time, money, and energy in a typical day or week. Is there a balance of tactical and strategic work or do the scales tip to one side?

If you find yourself needing to grow and protect more “ugly babies” consider carving out a dedicated team, day of the week, or series of meetings solely focused on nurturing new ideas.

If you find yourself with a ton of ideas and little execution then your business could be in trouble. Make sure that you have a pipeline of ideas that actually make it out to the real world in order to cover costs and keep the project going. Consider focusing more time, energy, and resources on those activities.


Lesson 4) Conduct short experiments

Pixar uses “shorts” or short animated films to highlight the artistry of their work and test out new ideas. They found it to be a great way to expose the team to a broader range of experiences because the smaller team meant that each person had to cover more roles. They also found that the small team size fostered deeper relationships and the smaller projects were more forgiving if they happened to fail.

Better to have train wrecks with miniature trains than with real ones.

– Joe Ranft

Application to daily life

Think about the time and number of people it takes to deliver your typical set of value. Maybe it’s one person over a week, 10 people over a month, or 100 people over three-six months.

Then select a dramatically shorter increment. If it normally takes one person one week, plan a project that you could implement in a day or an hour. If you have a large team working on project that normally takes months or years to deliver, define a project that could take 10 people a month to complete. It could be a miniature version of your regular work or a completely different project.

For example, if your ultimate work involves creating a month-long training seminar for people in a developing country, try running a 1-2 hour seminar locally. If you have a team of people working on a website launch, carve out a smaller group to prototype alternatives of one page or section of the site. Have them work on the entire life cycle at a much smaller scale, from need identification to design, testing, and marketing copy.


Lesson 5) Go on research trips

After the Disney-Pixar merger, Ed talks about how insistent Pixar was that the Disney team visit New Orleans to conduct research for “The Princess and the Frog” in order to make sure the details were right. Every little detail from the architecture to the accents could influence the overall authenticity of the film and quality of the product.

We persisted: This was something we knew was an essential component of creativity and we weren’t kidding about its importance.

– Ed Catmull

Application to daily life

Get yourself and/or your team out of the building. If you’re trying to fix a complex problem from one place, switching locations to conduct research will help immensely for a new perspective and source of information.

You could try visiting the communities where your customers live, touring your supplier’s factories, reading questions people are asking on forums, or shadowing someone who either has the job you want or is experiencing the problem you’re trying to solve.


Lesson 6) Define your leadership mental model

Maybe it’s the storytelling influence but “Creativity, Inc” is full of management metaphors and visualizations to keep them positive during tough times.

I like this mental model in particular (but maybe I’m a little biased because of my sailing background). It captures the uncertainty you’ll deal with as you work towards solving important, complex problems but also an important notion that you chose to be in this game.

If you’re sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing? You have to embrace that sailing means that you can’t control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side. You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That’s the game you’ve decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don’t get in the boat.

– Andrew Stanton

Application to daily life

Pick one of the mental models outlined in the book or create your own. Write it down and evaluate it. Does it energize you or make you feel anxious?

Spend a few days living with it, and see how you feel. Does it help you feel more productive or calm? Are your outputs or relationships improving? If so, start sharing your model with people in similar roles. If not, try adjusting it. Over time, you may build up a library of mental models to help navigate the uncertainty and lack of control that comes with any complex, creative endeavor.


What were your favorite takeaways from this book? How would you encourage people to apply those principles in their own work or life?

By the way, the reading for December is “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg to help us get ready for changes in the new year.


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