Pixar: What Innovators Can Learn

By Shlomo  Maital    

 Woody, in Toy Story

What can innovators learn from the brilliant creative animators and executives at Pixar (who created, among others, Toy Story 1, 2, 3,  Ant Story, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, my own personal favorite (about a rat who loved gourmet food and learned to cook it).  Recall that Steve Jobs was the founder and creative spirit at Pixar.

    McKinsey Quarterly has recirculated a 2008 article about this, including an interview with Brad Bird, a Pixar director and two-time Oscar winner. * 

   Here are some key lessons in Brad Bird’s own words:

1. FIGHT COMPLACENCY:  “One thing that was unbelievably different about this company was that they were worried about becoming complacent. When I came here, they had made three movies—Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2—that had all been big hits. I was coming off a film called The Iron Giant that was a highly regarded financial failure.  Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter said, in effect, “The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.” For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, “Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up”—when do you run into that? “

2.  FIND AND EMPOWER THE ‘BLACK SHEEP’:  “[I said, ]….Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well.

We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here. For less money per minute than was spent on the previous film, Finding Nemo, we did a movie that had three times the number of sets and had everything that was hard to do. All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas.”

3.  SEEK PASSION AND INVOLVEMENT, ABOVE ALL, NOT ‘JOB SATISFACTION’: “I would say that involved people make for better innovation. Passionate involvement can make you happy, sometimes, and miserable other times. You want people to be involved and engaged. Involved people can be quiet, loud, or anything in-between—what they have in common is a restless, probing nature: “I want to get to the problem. There’s something I want to do.” If you had thermal glasses, you could see heat coming off them.”

4. TO SAVE MONEY BUILD MORALE:  “In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.”

 5. LEVERAGE SUCCESS BY REACHING MUCH HIGHER:  “The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved. There was a point during the making of The Incredibles where we had a company meeting. We have them about twice a year, and anybody can bring up concerns. Somebody raised their hand and said, “Is The Incredibles too ambitious?” Ed Catmull said, “I don’t know” and looked over at me. I just said, “No! If there’s one studio that needs to be doing stuff that is ‘too ambitious,’ it’s this one. You guys have had nothing but success. What do you do with it? You don’t play it safe—you do something that scares you, that’s at the edge of your capabilities, where you might fail. That’s what gets you up in the morning.””

6. CUSTOMER INTIMACY STARTS WITH YOU! “….my goal is to make a movie I want to see. If I do it sincerely enough and well enough—if I’m hard on myself and not completely off base, not completely different from the rest of humanity—other people will also get engaged and find the film entertaining.”

7. MAKE THE PHYSICAL WORKPLACE ITSELF CREATIVE.  “If you walk around downstairs in the animation area, you’ll see that it is unhinged. People are allowed to create whatever front to their office they want. One guy might build a front that’s like a Western town. Someone else might do something that looks like Hawaii. Steve Jobs initially didn’t like this idea, but John Lasseter said, “We’ve got to let it go a little crazy where the animators are.” John believes that if you have a loose, free kind of atmosphere, it helps creativity.  Then there’s our building. Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

8. CREATE A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. “One thing Pixar does—which is a knockoff of old-school, Walt-era 1940s Disney—is to have all kinds of optional classes. They call it “PU,” or Pixar University. If you work in lighting but you want to learn how to animate, there’s a class to show you animation. There are classes in story structure, in Photoshop, even in Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense system. Pixar basically encourages people to learn outside of their areas, which makes them more complete. Sometimes, people even move from one area to another.”

9. MAKE MONEY CREATIVITY’S HANDMAIDEN, NOT ITS TYRANT. “Walt Disney’s mantra was, “I don’t make movies to make money—I make money to make movies.” That’s a good way to sum up the difference between Disney at its height and Disney when it was lost. It’s also true of Pixar and a lot of other companies. It seems counterintuitive, but for imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.

*   Hayagreeva Rao, Robert Sutton, and Allen P. Webb.  “Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird”. McKinsey Quarterly April 2008

Advertisements