Thursday, November 18, 2010

How To Pixar-ize Your Company

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.

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.”

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