How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity Part 1


A number of years ago Ed Catmull of Pixar wrote an article titled How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity in the Harvard Business Review Journal.  In it, he talks about how innovation is important when it comes to running a business. If you are doing the same thing you have been doing year after year, you might be doing something wrong—or, you might be doing something right.

Structuring your process to foster creativity and advancement could be the best bet for staying ahead—or getting ahead—in your industry. If you create a structure for innovation, it ensures that what you are doing is always improving upon itself. I love this concept and admire the movie-making method of Pixar in constantly growing and improving.

Beginning with its innovative release of Toy Story in 1995—the world's first-ever computer-animated feature film—the company has gone on to produce a total of nineteen feature films, all of which have debuted with CinemaScore ratings of at least an "A-." This means consistent positive audience receptions on every film they have ever produced. More impressive than this, fourteen of Pixar's nineteen films are among the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time, and three of Pixar's films—Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, and Toy Story 3—are among the 50 highest-grossing films of all time.

Pixar has been doing the same thing year after year, and that is why they have continued to have positive responses to the movies they have made, even when their competitors have had big flops at the box office. But for Pixar, doing the same thing year after year does not mean a cookie-cutter plot that makes their movies predictable—no, Pixar doing the same thing means utilizing a set structure that forces constant innovation.

It's called...collective creativity. Here’s what it means.  

According to Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, it all boils down to this:  people who hold creative positions are given extra power, employees are encouraged to help each other produce the best work possible, communication between staff members does not have to go through "proper channels," optional courses are offered so that employees are constantly being challenged to learn, and post-project discussions are structured to be fruitful and data-based. In other words, Pixar has created an environment where the power for creation and innovation goes to the creative people actually producing their films, not to the company's corporate executives or a development department.

Pixar's process has given them an exceptional track record of success, and the process stems from a unique perspective. According to Catmull, "People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea...[but] the initial idea for the merely one step in a long arduous process that takes four to five years." This has led Catmull to a conviction that smart people are more important than good ideas, which is why Pixar places so much weight on fostering a great working environment for their "creatives."

After the production of Toy Story 2, Pixar changed their processes. The development department—which in most studios is responsible for coming up with new movie ideas—took on a new role of assembling small teams of a director, a writer, some artists, and a few storyboard people, with the goal of finding individuals who work effectively together, solve problems, and ultimately refine their own ideas to a point where they have the potential to become great films. In this way, from idea generation to production, Pixar's films are truly "filmmaker led."

I love Pixar's operating principles, and I believe it is what makes their company so unique:

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.
  2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.
  3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.

Pixar has created a structure which effectively helps them be innovative and creative. Employees know what to expect because there is consistency in process, a consistency which does not hold them back, but instead breeds freedom for creativity within the safety of known boundaries. They do not shy away from sharing their technological breakthroughs with the academic community, and in the process, they foster advancement within their own team, but also attract talent from outside.

Pixar continues to do the same thing year after year, but they would not have it any other way.

If you get a chance to read the article in full I highly encourage you to.  It’s well worth the time.