Lessons from Pixar 2: Failure Is an Ingredient for Creativity

In Part 2 of my “Lessons from Pixar” series, I wanted to share the take-away around how failure is a key ingredient for creativity.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I recently read Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull, a book about the formation and growth of Pixar. Ed devotes a whole chapter of his book to the discussion of “Fear and Failure.”

Those of us who have been part of startups as well as innovative larger companies are familiar with the refrain, “Fail early and often.” This quote has become kind of a tagline for doing a startup. What does it actually mean, and why is it important to the act of creation?

Failure is necessary for creation

Ed writes about how many people go out of their way to avoid failure. We have all felt the embarrassment, the pain, and sometimes the hit to our self-esteem when we fail. No question that failure is uncomfortable and sometimes pretty painful. Some people will chalk mistakes and failure up as a “necessarily evil” on the path towards creation. But Ed takes a different view:

“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”

Ed cites some examples of how to think about failure from Andrew Stanton, the director of “A Bug’s Life” and “Finding Nemo.” Around Pixar, Andrew Stanton is known to frequently say, “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.”

When he discusses failure with his team, Andrew uses the example of learning to ride a bike. You can’t imagine learning to ride a bike without making mistakes — and falling down as you learn. So to encourage his team to embrace failure, Andrew says:

“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go.”

He also invokes the example of learning to play the guitar.

“You wouldn’t say to someone learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

These metaphors of learning to ride a bike, or learning to play the guitar, for me perfectly capture the concept of why failure and mistakes are a necessary part of learning and creating.

Ed writes about Andrew Stanton’s approach to mistakes and failure:

“He deals with the possibility of failure by addressing it head on, searching for mechanisms that turn pain into progress. To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning. Andrew does this without hesitation.”

The Pixar culture of creativity and innovation is built on this thinking — that you have to experience failure in order to create something new. The desire to avoid failure is a sure shot recipe for stifling innovation.

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

If you don’t fear failure, you can be more decisive

One of the problems that people who fear failure experience is indecision. They spend too much time analyzing their options, coming up with plans, wringing their hands worrying about what will happen if they’re wrong.

Ed writes that with a fearless culture, “people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.” And as a result, your culture will experience the “upside of decisiveness.”

When you aren’t worried about failure, you’ll be more decisive and spend less time in “analysis paralysis.” And the sooner you go into action, the sooner you will get real insight — most importantly, real customer feedback (good or bad). You will start to see things that you would never have been able to see when you were in planning mode. And with the time that you’ve saved, you’ll still have time to pivot in a different direction if it turns out that your initial decision was wrong. In most cases, the work that you’ve done and experience you’ve gained with the initial direction won’t be wasted — you’ll probably be able to take away some useful ideas, at the very least.

Ed cautions about the danger of spending too much time up front planning your approach, rather than fearlessly leaping into action — it’s a recipe for derivative, unoriginal work.

“If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.”

Ed finishes his discussion about the upside of being fearless and decisive with this quote:

“In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed)… The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it.”

Don’t prevent mistakes — trust people to fix them

One of the best ways to build a culture that embraces failure and mistakes (rather than avoiding them) is to allow people to make and fix their own mistakes. No one is omniscient — you’ll never be able to see everything that can go wrong, and inevitably things will go wrong. It’s far better to have a culture that quickly fixes mistakes and adjusts plans, rather than trying to prevent them altogether. Creating this culture means being willing to trust the people on your team to have good intentions and the ability to recover from mistakes. As Ed writes:

“Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.”

When mistakes happen, don’t spend your energy trying to assign blame — rather, act quickly to fix the problem and get back on track. And if you make the mistake yourself, acknowledge the mistake openly, take responsibility for it, and move quickly to rectify it. This sets a great leadership example that it’s ok to make mistakes, but that you expect people to be open about their mistakes and then act quickly to fix them.

Ed ends his chapter about “Fear and Failure” with this passage:

“Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason — our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.”

Time and again, Pixar has proven its ability to deliver amazing, innovative films. One of the key ingredients for Pixar’s creative process is failure. If you want to create something new, you have to be willing to fail. And not just look at failure as a necessary evil — seek failure out early as part of the creative process. Don’t run away from failure, run towards it. The power of being fearless about failure is that it enables you to be decisive. You’ll act quickly and start going in a direction. You’ll learn real feedback, and if you’re wrong, you still have enough time to pivot in the right direction. In order to build a culture that’s unafraid to fail, you have to be willing to trust people to make mistakes and fix them quickly. The ability to tolerate mistakes and recover quickly means that an organization can take risks — and taking risks is the only way to innovate.