Pixar President Ed Catmull On How To Run A Creative Business

He's led the innovative animation giant to create 14 No. 1 movies. Here, Pixar's Ed Catmull shares why your first ideas should suck, how anyone at the company should be able to speak up, and why you want to make sure there's laughter in brainstorming sessions.

For many in creative fields Pixar is an example of a company that has it all figured out--the innovative animation giant has created 14 No. 1 movies in a row. Clearly they are doing something right. But what? Can other managers learn from their success?

In a sold-out talk at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference last week Executive Editor Rick Tetzeli asked Pixar President Ed Catmull to share his secrets to leading a creative company.

His experience in running an artistic powerhouse shouldn’t dissuade those of us in less creative fields. “What I’ve learned running Pixar applies to all businesses, he said. “I apply the term 'creativity' broadly ... it’s problem solving. We are all faced with problems and we have to address them and think of something new and that’s where creativity comes in.”

Here are four lessons in running your business (no matter what it is) with a more creative and open mind.

1. Let Your Ideas Suck

Pixar movies have multi-layered, compelling stories and are beautifully put together, but they don’t start that way. Catmull shared the process that the beloved movies go though, starting with a story that bears no resemblance to the final product. He said, “All that anyone sees is the final product and there’s almost a romantic illusion about how you got there. When we first put up something--these stories suck.”

For example, he shared that the first version of the movie Up included a king in a castle in the clouds. They threw everything out from that first idea except a bird and the word “up,” from there it went through several other iterations with a little more of the final story emerging each time. They had to make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of failures along the way to get the final product, he said.

2. True Creative Processes Aren’t Quick Or Easy

“People would like to be done quickly,” Catmull explained, which is a product of what he calls the need to “feed the beast.” A phrase he heard when he first joined Disney, he explained that “the beast” is the majority of people who are making the film (or building the product)--they are concerned with generating the revenue and making sure things get completed. While those goals are important, creative leaders have to recognize that initially things will be a mess and protect the process.

But, Catmull acknowledges, “you can’t protect something forever because at some point you have to make a product.” Getting it right is a balancing act. He said:

“If the beast engages too early, it screws it up, and if you let them wander along too long then you screw it up, so you have to find a middle ground. There is nothing about this that is easy but the temptation is to make it easy.”

3. Communication Can’t Follow Organizational Structure

While many companies work well with a hierarchy, communication shouldn’t follow the same rules, according to Catmull. “Communication needs to be between anybody at any time,” he says, “which means it needs to happen out of the structure and out of order.” Managers don’t like to give up of control, he explained, “it’s often taken as a sign of disrespect if you go into a meeting and learn something for the first time.” But such open lines of communication are necessary if you want to create a creative environment where good ideas can be freely shared without worry that things have to go through the “proper channels.”

4. Pay Attention to Group Dynamics

Pixar is known for its creative “brain trusts”--groups that work perfectly together to solve problems and perfect ideas. But an effective brain trust is more that just a group of smart people, or even a group of people who get along, according to Catmull.

After studying what made his most effective brain trust so successful he realized it was that no one in the group had authority to change the project. “It allowed the director to listen,” he explained, “if someone in the room had the authority to override him then it meant that they had to defend their project, which isn’t healthy to the project. So by removing the power you let them listen.” This way, he said every member of the group has a vested interest in each other’s success.

Catmull asserts the value of creating a space where it’s safe for people to say something stupid with fear of being chastised. But he stresses that it’s the job of managers “not to judge what they are talking about but to look at the personal dynamics of the room.” There will be people who want to impress everyone, and people who don’t want to hear the truth, it’s your job as a leader to notice that and create a new group to get dynamics that work.

“The problem isn’t finding ideas,” he said, “it’s finding a team that works well together. You can’t judge the product you have to judge how they are working together, how they interact with each other--the laughter in the room. “

[Photograph by Rebecca Greenfield for Fast Company]

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4 Comments

  • The creative process is very difficult to formulate. This piece does a great job of getting to the key points.

    My question is: Do 'most' companies truly want creative thinking? I doubt it. A company like PIXAR depends on the constant production of new ideas. I contend that the widget manufacturer does too. The widget maker doesn't see it that way, however. Most business's focus on creativity revolves around finding ways to cut cost.

    We have great creative opportunities in creating better widgets, designing less wasteful packaging and moving toward sustainability. There are ethics opportunities in looking for ways to improve the lives of employees.