Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, has been known to say that he considers smart people, working together as more important than good ideas. To some that is quite shocking, coming from a creative powerhouse that has spawned ideas into blockbusters. But, a closer look at Pixar’s culture reveals that collaborating may actually be Pixar’s secret sauce – the soul of its creative culture and mega success.
In a blog on HBR, Ed writes about the genesis of this culture:
“People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea: This is a movie about toys, or dinosaurs, or love, they’ll say. However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process.”
In a world where businesses are driven by creativity, innovation and the need to stay ahead of the curve, this does sound like something many of us can relate to and learn from.
Needless to say, this isn’t easy. Even in businesses that don’t build creative products, we’ve all seen people get stuck with ideas and ownership in our board rooms. If getting people to collaborate on their ideas with other people isn’t always easy, motivating people to help others’ ideas win can be significantly more challenging.
But that’s where Pixar’s work on culture becomes its competitive advantage.
Ed believes that his company thrives in being more than just a workforce. He sees this as a passionate and accomplished community, with a peer culture that lets people feel they are all part of creating something extraordinary, together.
This peer culture is visibly role-modelled by its most critical stakeholders, the Directors and Producers in the company. When any director or producer feels in need of assistance, they convene a group called the Brain Trust – the other producers and directors in the company, who would otherwise be natural competition (and anyone else they think could add value) – and show their work in progress. This is followed by an honest discussion on making the movie better. There’s no ego. This works because all the participants have trust and respect and would rather learn from colleagues than from the audience after it’s too late. Finally, it’s up to the director of the movie and their team to decide what to do with the advice. And everyone respects that. This culture of trust, respect and collaboration seeps into every other function as well and has various rituals and processes that have emerged, like the Brain Trust.
Pixar’s culture of courageously collaborating to produce creative magic in technology and ideas is enabled by some key building blocks:
- Ownership and collaboration around a shared vision of success
- A safe environment for everyone to communicate with everyone. Ed actually describes it as a culture in which it’s fine for a manager to be surprised in a meeting and that never being a problem. Functional hierarchies, geographies, physical workspaces and ranking order are never tall enough gates or excuses to not communicate
- Everyone shares ideas and feedback fearlessly. No ideas are judged
- Collective cross-functional training and learning are facilitated in shared spaces, across functions and hierarchies
- New people, who come with curiosity and fresh ideas have a voice and space to contribute and learn
Pixar’s peer culture breaks many stereotypes on creativity and inspires us to learn the power of collaboration in not just de-risking but unlocking our organisations. There is something each of us can learn from this fascinating case study.
Courageous collaboration is one of the dimensions that come through in our research and work on helping companies thrive. If you’re curious about how your organisation, teams and leaders can thrive – do reach out for a chat.