Watching the Oscars last night I was struck (yet again) by the utter brilliance of Pixar.
Across 17 years, 10 movies and a major (successful) corporate merger, Pixar has consistently delivered movies that not only redefine what’s possible in the worlds of visual technology and animation, but that make us gasp with the beauty and wonder of the human truths and life experiences they describe.
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They’ve never made a dud. Far from it. Each movie seems to build on the sophistication and complexity of the last so that watching recent offerings like Ratatouille and Up it’s almost impossible to imagine what cultural heights are left to scale. And yet they somehow manage to pull it off with the next product.
But the point of this post isn’t to provide yet another homily to Pixar’s creative genius. Rather it’s to explore how it is that Pixar has achieved and sustained creative and business success on the level they have, and the lessons they provide for all companies –irrespective of industry or discipline.
In September 2008, Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios published an article in the Harvard Business Review that remains a must-read for executives everywhere – whatever their focus. In it, Catmull describes in some detail the values on which Pixar was built and the means by which success is sustained.
Catmull is a thoughtful and introspective leader. He argues that the obvious things about Pixar – the clarity of its vision, the passion and brilliance of its filmmakers, the scale of its ambition, and its uncompromising creative standards do not exist in isolation. Rather they are the manifestation of the extraordinary culture that Catmull and his partner John Lasseter have built.
“Most executives at least pay lip service to the notion that they need to get good people and should set their standards high. But how many understand the importance of creating an environment that supports great people and encourages them to support one another so the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts? That’s what we are striving to do”.
Catmull’s goal is to create an “all for one, one for all” mentality that helps employees overcome natural human traits that in other companies lead to the formation of silos and clicques which undermine learning.
At Pixar success is based on open collaboration among extremely talented people from multiple disciplines. But ironically Catmull has learnt that even in one of the most creative company on the planet collaboration flourishes most successfully within a defined process and organizational structure. In order to maintain this structure, Catmull is focused on fostering and continually enhancing three key inter-related facets of the business, namely:
“Clear values, constant communication, routine postmortems, and the regular injection of outsiders who will challenge the status quo aren’t enough. Strong leadership is also essential—to make sure people don’t pay lip service to the values, tune out the communications, game the processes, and automatically discount newcomers’ observations and suggestions”.
In other words, Catmull ensures that his people walk the Pixar walk. His approach to corporate leadership values vision and process over the ability to come up with lots of ‘ideas’. As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, ideas without vision are just tactics that may or may not work or be relevant to the overall goals of the company.
A recent article in HBR by Roberto Verganti gets at this point. Verganti claims that companies are too focused on ideas and that there are not enough visionary thinkers out there. Read Catmull and you might reach a slightly different conclusion. It’s not that there’s a lack of people with vision, it’s that too many bright people are locked up in corporate cultures that either reject or discourage visionary thinking.
Catmull is determined that all employees at Pixar are set free to express their vision and ideas without fear. He understands that corporate culture is defined by those at the very top of the company, and is clear about the role of a leader plays in setting the tone.
It’s one thing to hire great talent. It’s quite another to persuade them to work together effectively. Pixar has managed this by introducing and mandating a number of steps in the creative and movie-making process that redefine the meaning and purpose of collaboration.
In other companies people collaborate to advance or improve specific projects. At Pixar, everyone feels they have a stake in the success of everyone else. Collaboration is used to make sure that others in the company succeeds. This is the benefit of the ‘all for one, one for all’ team spirit that sets Pixar apart.
Part of the Pixar process is that work is shown in-progress in daily and other regular meetings with a large, revolving number of team members present. The purpose is to get people over the ‘hump’ of embarrassment about showing work that’s not finished or at least buttoned-up. The process helps to nip potential mistakes in the bud, open up work to better suggestions or ideas, increase cross-discipline knowledge, and make people less defensive or protective to their own particular contribution.
The result is that old hands and new hires alike develop healthy respect for each other – the foundation of credibility and trust.
Collaboration at Pixar is hardly free-form. It occurs in a highly defined creative and production process. This doesn’t mean that the company is static however. Leaders and managers are constantly seeking ways to improve and evolve.
Key to this is the establishment of clear lines of accountability. Each project is led by a Director/Producer duo, and all project members are accountable to them.
The Director and Producer in turn are accountable to the company’s leadership but also have the opportunity to utilize the company “brain trust” made up of senior film-makers. The brain trust deliberately has no executive power. They are there to advise and ideate only – executive authority is held by those who are on the hook for the production of another successful Pixar product delivered on-time and on-budget.
The ultimate take-away from Pixar is that they succeed by combining a passionately cherished vision with a highly structured process designed to foster meaningful collaboration. And all this is wrapped in a culture that is unified and that values both the ability and contribution of others.
Sounds simple. Much harder to pull off. But what’s surprising is that so few companies seem to be paying attention to how such an amazing product is being produced over and over again. It’s perhaps tempting to look at a company like Pixar – in a unique industry like the movie business – and dismiss any lessons as irrelevant to a different industry. That’s unwise. The Pixar approach of mission, leadership, process and accountability is agnostic.