Pixar president shares thoughts on getting the best from teams
By Mike Strathdee
As printed in The Marketplace – July/August 2018
Businesses that don’t let employees take risks and disapprove of failure will never get the best from their teams, the head of the Pixar movie studio told a recent technology conference in Kitchener.
“We have a problem with the word failure,” Ed Catmull said at the True North conference.
Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and now president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios (after Disney acquired Pixar in 2006), has been honored with five Academy Awards.
In a wide-ranging talk, he discussed the failures that preceded many of his successes and urged his audience to permit failure to unleash creativity.
Failure has two meanings, he said. In the first, failure is viewed as being part of life experience. “It’s a powerful learning tool, and we all know this.”
But the second, thinking of people who fail at a test, a class or a job, has a negative connotation.
“In politics and business, failure is used as a bludgeon with which to beat opponents. There is a palpable aura of danger around failure. This meaning is deeply ingrained in us.”
Every Pixar film — which include Toy Story, Cars and Finding Nemo — has had significant failures along the way, he said. Lessons from the failures led to new insights. The first of these was that Pixar needed to rethink failures and errors.
Most people cannot separate the positive and negative meanings of failure emotionally, he said. But that must change for creativity to be unleashed. “Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”
Apple founder Steve Jobs learned from failures at Apple, NeXT, and Pixar, Catmull said. Those experiences changed him into a different person “who made Apple as great as it is.”
Jobs learned to listen, to have empathy and caring, which led people to be loyal and stay with him the rest of his life.
Failure is asymmetric with respect to time, Catmull said. “We only have the luxury of calling a failure a learning experience after it happens.”
Zero errors are important in some industries, such as airlines, the medical industry, and banks. “Most of life is not like this, though.”
People must be open to things that don’t work to make progress. “I believe that everyone has the potential to be great. It is our choices that enable or block that potential. Remove the blocks to candor, make it okay to make mistakes.”
He believes expression of dumb ideas can seed the way for innovative ideas to come out. “We have to work hard to make it safe for people to say things that are wrong.”
A computer scientist by training, Catmull is the author of CREATIVITY, INC.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, a New York Times bestseller.
People think of creativity far too narrowly, he said. “Creativity is the process by which we solve problems, whether they are story, business or relationships.”
Asking how we become more creative is a natural tendency, but is the wrong question, he said. “The real question is, what are the management, the cultural and the personal forces that block creativity and change.”
Early in his career, Catmull realized that smart people were making mistakes that were inhibiting creativity. If they couldn’t see their problems, he reasoned, he probably couldn’t see his either. “How do we fix and address problems that we can’t see?”
When he finished university, he hoped to make a movie within 10 years. It took 20 years before he achieved that dream, with the release of Toy Story.
Initially, Pixar was a hardware company, making high-end equipment. Despite having Steve Jobs as a financial backer, staff didn’t understand manufacturing, marketing or sales. “We failed as a company, but we stayed together.’’
Not everyone was on the same page at Pixar, however. When they made their first movie, artists and technical staff saw production people as being second class. Information wasn’t passed along. Production staff resented the exclusion and talked about leaving the firm, which came as a surprise to management.
Once management understood the problem, they addressed it. By the end of the second film, the first group saw the second as partners, part of the best team in the world, he said.
Pixar has put together a group of people who assemble after an early version of a movie has been developed to comment on progress. These gatherings, known as the brain trust, operate under a set of rules designed to allow creativity to flourish.
Peer talking to peer is a guiding principle of the sessions. The second rule is to remove the power structure from the room. “Powerful people should not start the discussion,” he said, adding that he prefers managers listen and not speak for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
Third, the group is encouraged to say what they really think. Finally, management is asked to watch carefully the dynamics in the room to see if all are contributing and no one is dominating. “Are they really trying to help each other? Are they trying to impress?”
Much of the time, Pixar lives by its principles. Sometimes people learn to tune each other out or defer to what they see as the power structure in the room.
Still, “every once in a while, magic happens,” he said. “You feel ego disappear from the room. All attention is on the problem. Ideas come and go, without people being attached to them.”
Because new ideas are fragile, Catmull sees the need to protect his team while they are solving problems along the way. “All of our films sucked at first.”
The path toward making the film UP — which grossed more than $735 million and earned five Academy Award nominations — was wildly unpredictable. Early drafts of the story were all but discarded in subsequent revisions.
He sees his job as not being to prevent errors, but to respond when things go wrong.
Changing culture is an in-the-trenches experience, he said. “It requires observation, continually looking at the details, and doing hard analysis, self-analysis.”
Disney’s animation division floundered in the 1990s (prior to acquiring Pixar) due to a lack of introspection and failure to understand that not all parts of the operation could be run in the same fashion. “The talent was there,” he recalls of successful efforts to revitalize a dispirited Disney animation team. “We just had to remove the barriers to allow this creativity to flower.”
“What makes it (change) work in a culture is that everybody owns it.”
Catmull, who works in San Francisco, says he makes movies to have a positive effect on popular culture. When Silicon Valley “metastasized” into San Francisco, he realized that he couldn’t compete for employees based on salary. What he can do is compete on meaning. ◆