How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity


In Harvard’s Business Review article “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity”, Ed Catmull, computer scientist and current president of Pixar Animations and Walt Disney Animation Studios sheds some light on how Pixar continuously turns novel ideas into blockbuster films we all love.

Catmull is passionate about creating a sustainable creative organization that according to him can only be supported in an environment

  • where lasting relationships matter
  • where it is safe to tell the truth
  • where the management’s job is not to prevent risk but to have the capacity to recover when failures occur
  • where own assumptions are challenged
  • where there is a continuous search for the flaw that could destroy the company culture

Catmull stresses that creativity is not a mysterious solo act. 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 deal of problems. Since a movie contains tens of thousands of ideas, the director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas by themselves. Rather, every single member in the 200-250 person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part. To come about this, there must be a strong feel for community where the environment nurtures trusting and respective relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity.

Thus, what is happening at Pixar is what Majchrzak et al (2013) hope to see in collaborative platforms, where people should make use of the community. Rather, the authors found that there is still minimal collaboration among participants, and minimal feedback-based idea evolution (Majchrzak et al, 2013)

At Pixar it is all about the talented people, not just a set of good ideas. Catmull explains that if you want to be original you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when the organization takes a big risk and fails. The key to being able to recover: talented people! When Pixar hit a bit of a hard time when producing Toy Story 2 Catmull said that “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work”.

Catmull’s idea about fostering collective creativity encompasses 4 practises that are not only interesting for other companies to adopt practically, but could also be useful for facilitating teamwork at university for instance! 🙂

  1. Empower your creatives. Giving your creative people control over every stage of idea development
  2. Create a peer culture. Encourage people across your organization to help each other produce the best work.
  3. Free up communication. The most efficient way to solve problems in complex projects like film-making, is to trust people to address difficulties directly, without first asking for permission. Thus, give everyone the freedom to communicate with anyone.
  4. Craft a learning environment. Reinforce the mind-set that you’re all learning – and it’s fun to learn together!
  5. Get more out of postmortems. People generally do not like to talk about what went wrong after completing a project and prefer to move on looking back at what went right. Postmortems should thus be structured so that it stimulates discussion.

_______________________________________________________________

  • Catmull, Ed. (2010), How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity, Harvard Business Review, 12(1)
  • Majchrzak, A., & Malhotra, A. (2013). Towards an information systems perspective and research agenda on crowdsourcing for innovation. Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 22(4), 257-268

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