How To Pixar-ize Your Company

Last Updated Sep 8, 2008 10:54 PM EDT

Pixar's creative genius is remarkable. The company has produced nothing but hits (nine in 13 years), astonishing for a movie studio. It has some brilliant people working for it, but in "Collective Creativity," an article in the September Harvard Business Review, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, says it's because he and his colleagues have spent 20 years creating a structure to support that brilliance.

Sean Silverthorne looked at this piece in late August in a nice post, Avoiding Tainted Love: How Pixar Builds Sustainable Creativity. As he says, "This is an excellent read into the science as well as the art needed to create and foster a creative workplace."

It is indeed that. I went through the piece during a flight this past weekend.

Catmull starts by arguing that companies don't understand creativity -- "good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity," he says. In fact, he says a single movie has tens of thousands of ideas, created by probably every member of teams that may be as large as 250 people.

Catmull says there are several keys to its success, all learned through trials.

Pixar vests creative power with the creative leadership. It bets big on its most creative people.

It also gives them an incredible support structure, and then it gets out of their way. It gives them access to a firmwide braintrust if they run into problems. The brain trust -- John Lasseter, its chief creative officer, and the firm's eight directors -- can review and advise, but has no authority over what gets decided.

Catmull says that same process has been successfully applied to the technical side of the company.

Yet while the creative decisions rest with just a few people, everyone can contribute. In fact, Catmull says Pixar has three operating principles:

  • Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. That means the leaders don't sign off on every decision, and sometimes may find themselves surprised during meetings.
  • It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas. People at all levels are encourage to use email, for instance, to send feedback, good and bad, to the creative leaders.
  • Stay close to innovative ideas in academia. It publishes research and goes to industry conferences, because it thinks people are more important than ideas, and engaging with its community helps it draw the best people.
Pixar has also designed its building with the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms and mailboxes in a central area, to "maximize inadvertent encounters" that can lead to more creativity.

Catmull says that watching computer companies rise and fall has shaped how he manages Pixar. He believes the firm has a way to avoid the innovator's dilemma -- missing the rise of disruptions or otherwise failing to respond to challenges.

One element of this: Pixar has developed a rigorous post-mortem process. It shifts the format of these after each major project, so they will not just come up with the same lessons learned. It also draws heavily on data -- how long did something take to happen? Was work finished before it was sent to another department?

Finally, he says that Pixar works hard, when hiring people, to make sure they don't fall into what he calls "awe-of-the-institution" syndrome. He holds orientations with new hires where he walks through the mistakes that have been made in the past and the lessons they've learned, "to persuade them that we haven't gotten it all figured out and that we want everyone to question why we're doing something that doesn't seem to make sense to them."

It's an excellent piece on how Pixar works, indeed. Anybody interested in spurring creativity in their companies should buy the issue (HBR does not post full articles online). But Catmull ends on the hopeful note that long after he and Lasseter and the other stars at Pixar are gone, new ones will be using the same structures to keep going. So far it's done this very well, mixing homegrown talent and new talent. What if it can't continue to draw the incredible talent it has? After all, Catmull is trying to revive the once great Disney Animation. It will take time for us to know whether Pixar has unbottled the creative genie for all time -- or just for now.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.