Pixar Magic for the Rest of Us: Making Candor a Way of Life

by Patty McManus

Pixar had another breakaway box office hit this summer with "Inside Out." The animated movie tells the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who faces a crisis in her young life. Pixar gives us a psychologically sophisticated exploration of Riley’s inner life that somehow makes kids and adults alike laugh, cry, and cheer.   

It’s hard to argue with the successes that Pixar can claim over the past twenty years. They revolutionized their industry’s approach to animation, and they continue to break new ground with the characters and themes in their movies—resulting in 100% of their releases producing box office success. 

In his 2014 book Creativity Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull pulls back the curtain on his remarkable organization to give us some clues about how they keep it coming. He acknowledges, proudly it seems, that while they have consistently made movie magic since they released "Toy Story" in 1995, it’s hard going every time. Catmull’s view is that missteps and mistakes are to be expected in any creative endeavor, and finding them fast makes all the difference to learning and recovery. Part of his job, he believes, is to create an environment for the candid feedback that helps the filmmakers identify and solve the inevitable issues that could compromise the Pixar storytelling quality that the world takes for granted. In Catmull’s words: "Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are…Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, 'from suck to not-suck.'"

Catmull describes how Pixar has created a culture that makes it safe for people to speak their minds—even when they need to tell a harsh truth that no one wants to hear. Imagine telling a brilliant director that some aspect of his beloved movie—the one he has been living and breathing 24 hours a day for months or years—just doesn’t work.  From Catmull: "A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group."

Everybody says this stuff—what’s not to love?  The hard part comes in building organizational capacity for truth-telling that makes it a fact of everyday life. Here are a few ways that Pixar keeps candor alive and well when it matters most:

1) Check-in routines foster candid feedback.

Pixar uses a mechanism they call the Braintrust: a group that meets every few months throughout the life of their films. The Braintrust is made up of Pixar’s trusted storytellers who may or may not be directly involved in the specific film under consideration. They review each films’ progress, often getting to see mock ups that give clear visibility into where things are going. 

The group serves as advisors to the director by identifying critical issues—maybe a character who doesn’t ring true or a story line that doesn’t add up. They primarily help to diagnose underlying root causes that need to be corrected and they offer suggestions if they have them. They are like a medical team of top notch specialists, the movie is the patient, and everybody wants the patient to thrive. Feedback in Braintrust meetings is all about the movie, not about the movie makers. There is an inherent assumption that the right people are in charge. 

2) Decision making is clear.

Decision making about the story and how it’s told is the director’s job and nobody else’s. Even the Braintrust doesn’t seek consensus about the solution to a movie’s problems. They are no doubt an opinionated and passionate crowd, but the goal is not to be right or to win. Their job is to support the director by generating lots of good thinking and ideas. This specific choice means all parties are operating with conscious collaboration.

Catmull proposes that the rest of us don’t have to be filmmakers to have our own Braintrust. We just have to know who makes us think smarter. Inquiry and suggestions from our own advisors can help us see around our blind spots to generate new possibilities. Their job is to support us; our job is to listen, take it in, and manage the natural defensiveness that happens because we are human, after all. 

3) The leader’s job is to hold the line for candor.

So many organizational and relationship barriers can block candor:  fear of retaliation from those more powerful, hesitancy to hurt someone’s feelings, loss of momentum on a tight time frame.  Catmull is unrelenting on this point—the leader must insist on, foster, and protect candor at all costs.  He offers a telling example:  early on, he convinced Pixar’s CEO Steve Jobs to refrain from attending Braintrust meetings.  Catmull felt that Jobs’ strong presence would undermine the fluid truth-telling atmosphere central to the Braintrust’s value.  Catmull considers candor so essential to Pixar’s storytelling success that any barrier must be identified, understood, and addressed. Period. 

Movie making is not the only enterprise where problems emerge that demand frank assessment and potentially disruptive action. For the rest of us, the application of the practice of candor is obvious but never easy.  Whatever the leader’s role, she has to start with asking herself, “What am I absolutely unwilling to hear? Which topics are off the table?”  Only by knowing her own sacred beliefs and topics can she figure out if she is risking more than just her ego or a project timeline. 

We know from research that the smartest teams maintain an even flow of communication that allows every voice to be heard, not just the big shots or the extroverts. Fostering the atmosphere for everyday candor needs constant attention because of the inherent vulnerabilities and biases in all human beings. A good start is the creation of regular mechanisms for unvarnished feedback and leaders who actively eliminate the inevitable barriers that get in the way.  In Catmull’s own words: "If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem."

 

 

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