Refine Your Ideas by Building a Creative Brain Trust

Maybe you’re stuck on an idea. Maybe you’re too close to a project. Maybe you just need a little bit of perspective on something you’re working on. If you’re working on something creative, an outside perspective can be just what you need to improve your ideas and get back on track. According to Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, the best way to get that perspective is by building a brain trust.

What’s a Brain Trust?

A brain trust is a group of people who engage in pure and efficient brainstorming without feeling pressured to keep great ideas to themselves. Anyone, from janitor to CEO, can be a part of your brain trust, as long as they do these two things:

  • Help you think smarter
  • Put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time

The brain trust concept finds its roots in Pixar’s animation studio. During the creation of Toy Story, the studio’s first feature-length film, the five men who led and edited the production found themselves coming together to candidly discuss the movie’s progress. Being able to freely discuss ideas without arguing or allowing personal issues to thwart meaningful communication led to an abundance of great ideas.

Seeing the success of the brain trust in creative endeavors, Pixar attempted to apply the same concept to its technical branch. Unfortunately, the results weren’t quite as good. This led to another conclusion about creating a successful brain trust: the trust can have no authority over the outcome.

When a Pixar brain trust meets, no one in the group has the power to force the director to make certain changes. Instead, it’s up to the director to take what he needs from the discussion. No one feels defensive or undermined, leading to a more productive dynamic.

Why do Brain Trusts Work?

Ed Catmull puts it best:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in something you’re creating, and having people assess and challenge your creation can be excruciating. A well-managed brain trust provides a way for an idea itself to be examined, not the person who creates it. By maintaining an environment where the people who assess an idea have no authority over the creator, the creator is able to benefit from a new perspective without feeling defensive.


The key to creating a successful brain trust is candor. Being able to speak openly leads to new ideas and helps to bring new life to old ones. Creating a highly functioning brain trust leads to an environment where candor is rewarded. Managers can cultivate this type of environment by making sure everyone in the group has a chance to use their voice rather than stepping in and solving problems themselves.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

By bringing the right people together and maintaining an open and productive dynamic, a creative brain trust is a great way to refine creative ideas.

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