Raising the bar for success — together

What Pixar can teach us about creative team management

Matt Gramcko
Feb 11, 2020 · 8 min read
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“Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems.” In the midst of Pixar’s Golden Age (1995–2010, give or take an Inside Out), Ed Catmull attributed Pixar’s streak of successful films to introspection and the sustainable management of creative talent.

The manager’s role is to safeguard the dynamics of her or his team, to sit back and really look at what’s going on in the room, how people interact, and how the culture can optimize true expression of creativity.

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Credit: Disney

It is clear that the taxing demands of the workplace, and the unreasonable standards that the company sets for all its workers, has twisted the employees’ mindsets. Sulley, the top scarer of human children, and Randall vie for the top spot at the expense of their own growth and that of their assistants. Sulley doesn’t feel the drive to explore relationships outside of his siloed success, and Randall projects his frustrations and lack of control onto his assistant Fungus, constantly threatening and berating him.

Spoiler alert: Monsters, Inc. resolves this work culture by adopting some of Pixar’s values of new ideas and collaboration, so let’s talk about how they got there.

A traditional culture was not going to work at Pixar

During the making of Toy Story, production managers forced artists and technologists to follow the chain of command when discussing the project. The artists and technologists rebelled and began acting disrespectfully to production managers. It eventually got so bad that production managers no longer wanted to work at Pixar.

Catmull and John Lasseter, visionary of Toy Story and other Pixar films, made it clear that, while decisions needed to respect leadership, “anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand.” By the time Pixar completed its second feature, A Bug’s Life, production managers were treated with respect.

They made a culture of honest feedback

“If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”

According to Catmull, this idea of speaking honestly and putting product quality first is the core of Pixar’s magic. Saying something others think is stupid and looking bad is scary; employees may be concerned about offending someone, getting into a conflict, or stepping on the ego of a more senior colleague. All of these factors can get in the way of open communication.

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The Braintrust: Pixar’s primary delivery system for straight talk. Smart, passionate people identify and solve problems, and facilitate give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better without ego or pulling any punches. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess the current version of each movie in progress. It promotes an environment where a variety of people — directors, writers, and heads of story — has stock in one another’s success. And one thing that never changes is the demand for honesty.

Braintrusts are “frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love.”

Everyone should raise the bar together

Catmull credits Toy Story 2 as the defining moment when Pixar found its soul. The team that made the original Toy Story had been working on A Bug’s Life while Toy Story 2 was in development as a direct-to-video sequel, at a decidedly lower cost and quality. While in production, there was no doubt the initial idea for a story was good, but the story reels were not where they ought to have been at the start of the animation process, and they were not improving. The different team of directors and producers were not rising to the challenge.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.

When A Bug’s Life was finished, it freed up the Toy Story crew to take over creative leadership of Toy Story 2. Knowing that the company’s future depended on them, crew members worked at an incredibly fast pace over only 8 months (Pixar films famously take years of development to see the light of day).

Toy Story 2 defeated the odds and became a rousingly successful, critically acclaimed feat. In order to do this, all other productions were shut down. The crew was asked to work inhumane hours, and many suffered repetitive stress injuries. In the end, it wasn’t long hours or stressful environment that represented success — it was the shared passion. Everyone who worked on this film made tremendous personal sacrifice to fix the film in attainment of a perceived quality bar, and in the process, proved to themselves that everything they touch needed to be excellent, down to the DVD production, toys, and other consumer products associated with the characters.

Ideas come from anywhere

After Toy Story 2, Pixar changed the mission of the development department from its traditional role of coming up with new ideas for movies to assembling small, effective incubation teams. They help directors refine their own ideas to a point where they can convince senior filmmakers that those ideas can make great films. Each team consists of a director, a writer, some artists, and some storyboard people. Instead of judging based on material, the teams’ health is based on social dynamics and whether they are solving problems and making progress.

Everyone at Pixar is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work. Continually embracing change makes newcomers less threatening. Exciting ideas from prominent outsiders have had a big impact because their ideas were readily accepted, like Brad Bird who was an outsider to the studio but showed his passions through directing The Incredibles and Ratatouille. To get younger people to have the confidence to speak up, they practice talking about mistakes made and lessons learned to persuade them that we haven’t gotten it all figured out and to question things when they don’t make sense.

Don’t underestimate talent

If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. Catmull maintains that it’s talented people who are necessary to recover. To reach effectiveness, the environment needs to nurture trust and respectful relationships to spark creativity.

Directors at Pixar are expected to set people up for success by giving them all the information they need to do the job right without telling them how to do it. Each person on a film is given creative ownership of even the smallest task. Good directors can harness the analytical power and life experiences of their staff members to listen and understand the thinking behind every suggestion. They appreciate all contributions, regardless of origin, and use the best ones.

The role of physical environment

Even the story behind Pixar’s headquarters centered on collaboration. As Pixar’s CEO, Steve Jobs wanted it to be a place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” A main attribute of this vision included a great atrium space that acts as a central hub for the campus “to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

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It was planned by Jobs to be home to the campus’ only restrooms. The idea was that people who were naturally isolated would be forced to have great conversations, even if it took place while washing their hands. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, said of this space, “The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space…But Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.”

Chief creative officer John Lasseter said he’s “never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.” And this was in 1999, before Silicon Valley caught on to this idea of architectural inspiration.

The role of technology

“Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”

Pixar constantly tries to find and embrace better technology at every stage of production. Almost every film includes some form of innovation in animation — from Sulley’s fur in the wind to the thousands of balloons in Up, Pixar constantly pushes what is technically possible.

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[Credit: Disney]

As the studio at the forefront of computer animation, it realized strength in engaging with the wider animation community — in March 2015, it released its Renderman software free for non-commercial use because they know the value in everyone raising the bar together.

In the end, Monster’s Inc. looked a whole lot like Pixar

“I’ll kidnap 1,000 children before I let this company die, and I’ll silence anyone who gets in my way!”

Waternoose’s obsession with reputation and financial gain is the root of all conflict in Monsters, Inc. He spread lies about the toxicity of children, sowing fear into his employee’s lives, manipulated his workers, and created distrust and jealousy among them through the use of the ‘scare record’, producing jealous, vindictive, and unvalued workers.

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The scare floor becomes the laugh floor; the leader board changes to show a joke of the day [Source]

The ending of Monsters, Inc. reflects what can happen in an introspective and collaborative work environment. The organization becomes flat, the monsters are doing work with smiles on their faces, and the direction of the company changes. With Sulley as the new CEO of Monsters, Inc., energy is harvested from children’s laughter instead of screams, as laughter has been found to be ten times more potent. Everyone on the floor, including all the former assistants and second hand workers, finds their strengths in making children laugh and contributing their own comedic ideas. Even the atmosphere gets brighter and is made to look like a celebration. We can only hope this dynamic will be further explored in Monsters at Work.

When leadership that champions diversity of thought, accepts new ideas, and places value on people and relationships, it allows the business to become more successful than it ever was — and a lot less scary.

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