Pixar on Management

With movies like Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, Pixar has left an indelible mark on the world, enriching our personal lives with characters that speak to us at a deeply emotional level.  With the publication of the book Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, Pixar now stand a chance to change our professional lives for the better, especially for those of us involved in creative pursuits.

There are lots of gems in the book and I can’t recommend it highly enough to all managers with an innovation remit. Many of Catmull’s principles and ideas around finding the best possible people and empowering them to do the best job they can are, by now, familiar to us all. What is not commonly seen elsewhere are insights into specific processes around communication, organisational structure, and creative pursuits that are needed to develop and, more importantly, maintain an innovative culture. Here’s a selection of these ideas. The words are that of Catmull’s and all I have done is organise them into several themes.

On communication:

  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem. There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job as the manager is to continually search for those reasons and then address them.
  • Many managers feel that if they are not notified about problems before others are or if they are surprised in a meeting, then that is a sign of disrespect. Get over it.
  • Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.
  • Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

On success and failure:

  • The first conclusions we draw from our successes and failures are typically wrong. Measuring the outcome without evaluating the process is deceiving.
  • Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • Our job as managers in creative environments is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-great-ness. It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them. Protect the future, not the past.
  • Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
  • Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up — it means you trust them even when they do screw up.

On creative processes:

  • Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be.
  • Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances.
  • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.

On change management:

  • An organisation, as a whole, is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it. Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change — it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.
  • Do not accidentally make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability.

It’s obviously impossible to capture the depth of Catmull’s excellent book in a page, and the importance of the above ideas are of course in the rationale and evidence, collected over a lifetime by Ed Catmull, behind those ideas. To get that understanding, one must read the book in its entirety, and I hope I have just given the reader a good reason to.

 

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