Avoiding Tainted Love: How Pixar Builds Sustainable Creativity

Last Updated Aug 26, 2008 1:55 PM EDT

What do these songs from the pop canon have in common?
  • Come on Eileen
  • She Blinded Me With Science
  • Ice Ice Baby
  • The Macarena
  • Tainted Love
Yes, they were all monster hits. But they were also one-hit wonders. Their creators could never twice capture lightning in a bottle.

Many companies as well have been built on the back of a single successful product that couldn't be repeated. After you roll out the Pet Rock, what comes next? Fads fade quickly unless you can systematically sustain innovation.

Avoiding Tainted Love: How Pixar Builds Sustainable CreativityBoffo Box Office

Perhaps no company understands better how to keep the creative fires burning constantly than Pixar, which has recorded a string of blockbusters stretching back to Toy Story in 1995. All these films were conceived, developed, and created inside the company -- no outside scripts were used in the making of this product.

So what's the secret? Co-founder Ed Catmull pens an insightful Harvard Business Review article on how Pixar finds, fosters, and sustains creativity.

Among the studio's core values:

  • Invest in talented people rather than great ideas. The fomer are harder to find. "Construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone's creativity," Catmull writes.
  • Encourage risk but "build the capability to recover when failures occur." When you develop a movie whose lead character is a rat chef, you're taking risks!
  • Constantly challenge assumptions. "Systematically fighting complacency and uncovering problems when your company is successful have got to be two of the toughest management challenges there are."
Serendipity Junction
Catmull credits another Pixar founder, Steve Jobs, with a clever building design (he's a freakin' architect too?) that encourages creative collisions.

"Most buildings are designed for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters," Catmull writes. "At its center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes. As a result, everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of the workday. It's hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are."

This is an excellent read into the science as well as the art needed to create and foster a creative workplace.

Related Reading:

The Pixar Touch: Useful Commute Podcast (BNET)

(Pixar image by Aaron Gustafson, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.