What Pixar Got Right

Giff Constable innovation, management

Pixar is an inspiring place. In addition to prioritizing storytelling, they got a lot right when it came to process and human interactions.  Fast Company has a nice piece interviewing Pixar alumni, and I pulled out my favorite bits:

“There’s still a back and forth between creative and the audience, and you can’t be like ‘if I build it, they will come.’ No, we’re in a democratic world where everyone has opinions. If you’re making your cartoon and your joke’s not funny, it’s just not funny, it has to go.” [Suzanne Slatcher]

“One of the characteristics that made Pixar, and is very rare and important, is that the corporate culture recognized that contributions can come from everybody, anybody,” says Pam Kerwin

“They threw you into a lot of different things to try and eliminate fear from the creative process,” he [Gabriel Schlumberger] says. This meant improv classes, drawing classes, learning from people who were the best in their field–all in the interest of attaining confidence in your own artistic ideas. “Fear is the biggest killer of creativity,” Schlumberger says. “In order to cultivate a strong creative environment, you need to make people comfortable in expressing their ideas.”

A big part of this means not putting people into creative versus non-creative boxes. “Whether your job was coding, or drawing, or painting, or sculpting, nobody had a monopoly on creativity,” says Schlumberger. “As I transition more into management, I try to cultivate that.”

“The idea was to see ideas as a movie as quickly as you can, because that’s the medium it will be consumed in,” says Donohoe. “The same principle applies to any project where you’re trying to figure something out, like software design.”

“At Pixar we learned that you have to have patience,” says [Pam] Kerwin. “I was there in the beginning, so I know, and Ralph [Guggenheim] knows, and a couple other people know how long it took us to get there, how many pivots. That’s the kind of stuff that never comes out about Pixar, that we had a very rough beginning. (But) we were working for a common goal, and we learned to be patient until the world kind of caught up to what it was Pixar was doing.”

The important concept that Ed taught me, and that I have repeated and used hundreds and hundreds of times, is that you have to manage projects like you’re running a marathon–you can’t sprint the whole way,” says [Mickey] Mantle. “You’ve got to set a pace where you can win the race and be ready to sprint for the finish line. And then you’ve got to let people recuperate.”

“With a lot of Hollywood projects, a writer comes with a first draft and the executives are like ‘Oh my god! It’s the worst thing ever, you’re fired.’ But that’s true of every first draft,” he [Stephan Bugaj] says.

Ali Rowghani, who has been given a great deal of credit for sharpening Twitter’s business model ahead of its IPO last year, says that Pixar taught him “not to be precious about the first draft of anything. Ed used to say that the first version of a movie is always bad, and it’s not how ugly the baby is, it’s how much prettier it gets each time, each iteration. It’s a concept that applies to anyone’s work.”

Most important, though, is awareness and even embrace of potential failure.

“Ed Catmull says the purpose of an organization isn’t stability, it’s balance,” says Rowghani. “Stability is when you sort of pour concrete around something and just bolt it down. Balance is a state where if you think about yoga, you’re standing on one leg and you’re swaying left and right in these tiny little movements, but you’re able to stay balanced.”