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Managing Like Pixar

Many companies have tried integrating storytelling and technology skills to create computer animated features, but only one has been consistently on top. That success may be attributed to leadership and management focusing on a set of principles which create an environment where their teams can shine.

They did it again!

The closing credits began, the applause concluded, my family and I started to get up to leave.  In the 90 minutes leading up to this moment we went through a range of emotions - laughter, sadness, joy, fear, anger and love. Somehow we even recognize ourselves in the talking fish we just spent the afternoon visiting. Finding Dory is the latest and 17th release by Pixar, and judging by the box office results and reviews many others had a similar experience.  For over twenty years they have been releasing successful movies from both a creative and financial perspective winning over 30 academy awards and grossing over $ 10 Billion at the box office.

They were the first to release a fully computer animated feature film with Toy Story.  Since then they have been advancing the state of the technology and the results seen in the short film titled Piper, shown before Finding Dory, is quite astonishing. The challenges of animating water, bubbles, feathers, etc have all been overcome to near perfection where your only clue that you are watching animation is because it has Pixar's name on it - well maybe animals displaying human characteristics would be a clue as well.  But we don't go to watch the technology - we go to watch great story telling.  It turns out, that the success isn't just by putting together great technologists with amazing story tellers.

The Pixar Story - Walt, Ed, George, John, Steve and Disney

Ed Catmull, computer scientist, 3D graphics pioneer and President of Pixar and Disney Animation grew up in the 1950s.  Each Sunday evening he would watch Walt Disney's Disneyland on television.  The program geared towards making viewers aware of Disneyland through related shows and short features would also present programs on technology and animation.  Walt Disney was a pioneer in bringing creativity and technology together and continuously advancing both.  

Walt Disney

One evening, an eleven year old Ed watched as Walt presented Where Do the Stories Come From?. He watched a Disney Animator bring a drawing of Donald Duck to life.  The technical process was amazing to him but it was also the story that brought emotions to the drawing and gave it life that changed his life.  He wanted to become a Disney animator but he wasn't sure how and wasn't sure he had the artistic capability.  His other boyhood idol was Albert Einstein so some years later he went off to the University of Utah and majored in Physics and Computer Science and after a few more years gained a PhD in computer science. However, he didn't give up on achieving his Disney dreams, by age 26 he set a goal of developing a way to animate a full feature length movie with computers rather than pencil.

As a graduate student at U of Utah, he made a ground breaking film called The Hand, first shown at a computer science conference in 1973.  His objective was to create 3D animation with the goals of speed, realism and the ability to depict curved surfaces. Although a breakthrough, it was sill light years away from being able to create a full length feature on computers. After 5 years of working for some small companies pursuing computer animation he was hired by another technology/creative icon - George Lucas.


Lucas was not interested in animation but rather special effects for live action movies.  The group led by Catmull was acquired by Steve Jobs in 1986 after Jobs was fired by his own company, Apple.  Initially, Jobs was interested in the newly named company, Pixar, developing hardware/systems for 3D Graphics.  Eventually, Catmull was able to convince Jobs that they would be better focusing on the software tools and the actual content (movies).  They added an ex-Disney animator by the name of John Lassiter to their startup who would go onto provide the creative inspiration for Toy Story and subsequent hits and joining Ed in leading the company as Chief Creative Officer.  Finally, more than 20 years after starting to work on his dream, Toy Story was completed and released in 1995.  Disney became their partner and led the marketing and distribution of their movies.  In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar and has since been an independently run subsidiary of Disney.  Steve Jobs went onto focus on Apple and help them create a few items of interest over the next few years.  

Leadership and Management - Pixar Style

What can we learn from Pixar?  They are in a unique industry.  They have a product that takes many years to develop and once released it's over - it can't be updated, improved or changed.  However, it is a highly iterative process but the iterations have to precede the release.  It's also not based on a lone genius creating a script and plan and handing it off.  It's a multi-year effort of discovery, failure, feedback and change involving hundreds of creative, technical, financial, marketing, operations and managerial teams. From that perspective it's very much like many other companies in a wide variety of industries.

It would be easy to attribute Pixar's success to their acquisition of the best creative and technical talent.  After all they have one of the pioneers of computer automation leading them and have had involvement with George Lucas and Steve Jobs on their start up journey.  Early on, Ed Catmull, had an awareness how creativity is more about people than ideas.  As a result there are barriers or as he refers to it as unseen forces that can stand in the way of creative success.  Leaders and managers have a primary role to watch out for these barriers and create processes and culture that eliminates or minimizes these barriers. Catmull has outlined these principles in his book, Creativity, Inc. The following are some highlights from the book.

Honesty and Candor

Honesty, universally accepted as a goal for all of us in both our personal and professional lives, has been touted in many management and leadership books. In his own book, Catmull looks at honesty in a pragmatic way, which is within the context of the challenges the idea faces in human interaction. His thought is that honesty has many competing needs, wants and fears that come along with it once it starts being applied between two or more people. We are not always honest with each other and we don't always say exactly what is on our mind. This may be due to fear, self preservation or our inherent dislike of making someone feel bad.  At the same time, however, the key to solving problems and collaborating effectively, is to get unvarnished feedback without holding back or misleading.

To reach this goal, Catmull instead chooses to use the word candor, rather than honesty.  His logic, is that dishonesty, or the lack of honesty, has a negative aspect to it.  Although candor is often thought of as the same thing, there are important distinctions.  The opposite of candor can sometimes be discretion or the choice not to speak up. But, while it can have it's own shortcomings, candor doesn't have the ethical baggage that comes with honesty. Catmull sees management's role as understanding the baggage, spotting it and then working towards reducing it or eliminating it, which is why he values the importance of cador over honesty, and sought to ensure it was used effectively.     

Providing feedback during the development process wasn't something new, but Catmull and his team saw some inherent barriers in the traditional process.  First, the feedback would come as notes from a wide group, including the studio executives (the money).  The typical immediate reaction from the filmmakers was that the executives were providing notes without being story tellers or filmmakers.  Additionally, there was an unstated, or sometimes stated, direction that the notes had to then be followed.

The team at Pixar eliminated these two barriers using what they called the Braintrust. This collective group would meet to provide feedback every month or so to the film's director during the development process, a process which could last as long as 5 years in some cases.  The Braintrust would only include other filmmakers (storytellers, directors, animators, etc.). Catmull and other executives would be included, but their primary purpose was to ensure the feedback process was working as intended.  They were all filmmakers that had been through the same process, so the each understood the importance of frank feedback.  The second key change they made was that the Braintrust had no authority.  The film's director did not have to accept any of the feedback. The feedback was also focused on highlighting problems rather than providing prescriptions. The filmmaking team would determine the solutions.  Pixar Braintrust

Catmull describes the development process as one that always starts with "something that sucks" and, through iterations, gets better and better, and sometimes achieves excellence on the final release.  All the filmakers know this so they don't try to protect their initial ideas. They welcome and know they need the feedback.  It took many years for this process to work as intended and people needed experience providing and receiving the feedback.  To keep it moving forward they added new people to the process, fully realizing the new members may be uncomfortable as they provided feedback to some of the successful and famous filmakers. But the process has continued to generate results.  

Fear and Failure

Fear and failure go together.  We grow up with the belief that failure is bad, something to be ashamed of and something to avoid at all costs.  After we grow up and start working we hear that failure is something to learn and grow from but we tend to act according to other's actions rather than words.  The actions are usually still telling us failure is bad, something to be ashamed of, something to avoid at all costs - something to fear. There are some situations such as flying in an aircraft, being a patient in a hospital, and others where failure can mean actual injury or death where the fear is understandable.  However, in most other areas, especially creative ones, fear of failure can lead to continuous failure.

Fear from "Inside Out"

When a company's culture stigmatizes failure or focuses on who is at fault rather than then fixing the problem is sending the signal to avoid taking risks and fear making changes - both tend to be negative for any business. At Pixar, they understand failure is an inevitable part of the process so they embrace it.  Embrace doesn't mean accept and move on.  Embrace means to understand, accept frank feedback for improvement and work hard to apply the learnings. The leaders at Pixar don't hide their failures.  They use them to guide the future leaders in their team.  First in order to show that failure is not an end but a start and secondly to begin to disconnect fear from failure that the society has ingrained in all of us.  Failure is the event that we don't have control over but the reaction to it is one we do control. As a result their team has been able to take some unconventional paths and make a movie where it's main character is an old man with a cane - not very toy worthy, and a movie about what goes on inside a young girls mind - huh?  Both ideas that in other organizations may not have ever been whispered let alone pitched.

The Results

The above are just brief highlights from Creativity, Inc. Catmull's book is very well written about his lessons learned from his days as a graduate student in Utah to his current role in leading both Pixar and Disney Animation.  He seems to be a leader with a very high level of self awareness and awareness of others.  He understands his limitations and the natural barriers that come with human interaction.  He also understands how constantly watching out for these and reducing or removing these barriers may be the most important role leadership plays in creating successful organizations


But how do we know that Pixar would not have been successful without those leadership and managing principles outlined in the book. Could it be possible that the stellar results of Pixar over the years have made the managing principles stellar as an effect rather than cause. Perhaps, but one result provides a different story.  Disney animation had huge success in the early 90's with Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.  Then they went into a period of 17 years without a single feature of similar success.  After acquiring Pixar, Disney Animation remained a separate and independent organization but run by Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.  They decided to apply the same management/creative principles to Disney Animation.  It took 4 years but the results have been films such as Big Hero Six, Zootopia, and the biggest animated box office hit ever, Frozen.  The talent and teams were not changed - they were the same group that didn't have the same success during the seventeen year drought.  That's a strong testament in favor of Catmull's leadership and processes.

Catmull's book doesn't provide a recipe where one can duplicate it and create another Pixar. Learning rarely works that way although we tend to expect it to work that way and label anything that doesn't provide that as BS.  In this case, as probably all others, we have to take his concepts, experiences, inspiration and ideas and create our own recipe; constantly tweaking it and perhaps even failing to get it to work. The examples and experience are from the computer animated industry but his ideas to spot and break barriers are applicable to any where humans are working together to achieve a higher goal or purpose.