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Pixar’s Ed Catmull On How Collaborative Competition Drives Success

Catmull says that Pixar and Disney are both competitors and collaborators, in ways that make all their films stronger.

The first thing you notice when you step into Pixar’s famed atrium is the awards case. Golden statues of every shape and size, dozens of them Oscars, quietly attest to the studio’s creative dominance over the past two decades. But this weekend when Hollywood’s biggest prizes are handed out, for the first time in years, Pixar won’t be in consideration for best animated feature.

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2016, it seems, belonged to Disney’s. That studio, once hopelessly lost in a creative funk, is now releasing one critical and box office breakthrough after the next (Zootopia and Moana are both favorites to win on Sunday). This has left critics and fans to wonder if Pixar has begun to lose its edge. To Ed Catmull, Pixar’s longtime CEO, however, Disney’s renaissance is proof that a well-managed collaborative competition is the key to long-term creative success, for both companies. In fact, he believes, it’s critical to solving many of the complex, urgent problems the world now faces.

Zootopia, 2016. [Image: Disney Studios]

“When Disney bought Pixar, John [Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer] and I had an intuition that we should keep the groups separate,” Catmull says. “Steve [Jobs] thought that we’d be spreading ourselves too thin, but I had a strong philosophy on this and ultimately he listened.”

Catmull’s philosophy was certainly going against the grain of conventional wisdom. A consolidation would have created enormous efficiencies and reduced a lot of friction caused by running two companies and cultures at once. At the time of the purchase in 2006, however, Catmull and Lasseter had felt they had two more important things to worry about: The obvious one, that Disney wasn’t producing particularly good films and the less obvious but perhaps more urgent one, that people were beginning to believe that Pixar could do no wrong.

“I’ve always been surprised at the number of people who think we’ve got it all figured out,” Catmull sighs. “It’s incorrect and it’s a real problem.”

Here’s what that problem looks like in practice, Catmull says: highly creative, independent thinkers would join Pixar and before long start drifting into a conservative mindset. He would try to impress upon them how difficult and messy the creative process necessarily has to be, but the signals of success would put major psychological pressure on them to conform.

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“The need to challenge the status quo is just more obvious when you’re failing than when you’re succeeding,” Catmull says. “But it’s no less urgent.”

Moana, 2016. [Image: Disney Studios]

When highly motivated and intelligent teams work to solve complex problems, they tend to fall into a cognitive trap psychologists call “seize and freeze.” This means that after considering a limited number of options, they’ll agree to move on one quickly. Group dynamics like trying to please superiors and a preference for harmony force a kind of artificial consensus. Ironically, the fewer options we consider, the more confident the group becomes in its choice. That’s the “seize” part. From there, groups focus on support for that solution and ignore challenges to it. That’s where the “freeze” happens. It tends to lead to a highly mediocre creative output.

Catmull, who has been working since the 1970s to first create then develop the field of digital storytelling, had observed a way out of this trap.

“If you’ve got a mental structure in your head about how something works and someone says well this piece isn’t working, you feel like it’s all going to unravel. If it’s a local improvement fine. But if it doesn’t fit into your mental structure you don’t even hear it. What you need at this point is an outside force to hit you with a 2×4 and say it’s not working.”

Steve Jobs played this role perfectly in the early days of Pixar, Catmull says.

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“Steve would come in and look at a project and say ‘I’m not a filmmaker but I’m giving you my opinion. Take it or leave it. He was so articulate and clear that he broke right through their resistance.”

By keeping Disney as a friendly competitor, rather than absorbing it into Pixar’s culture, Catmull saw a way to preserve the creative 2×4 for both teams. He set up some basic rules for their collaborative competition. The studios would not be allowed to borrow each other’s resources when they got into a pinch. The wouldn’t be able to take over each other’s projects. No team would have veto power over another team’s movie. They were on their own to develop their own cultures and storytelling. But, they would have to openly share their work and they would have to listen to each other’s criticism.

Catmull, in fact, had been a champion of this type of open knowledge sharing for years. His first corporate job in the 1970s was at New York Tech where he was in charge of developing the earliest 3D animation software.

“I wanted to publish everything we were doing. The head of the place would say ‘we’re spending a lot of money developing this stuff. Why would we want to publish?’ But I could see we were far from the goal. The ideas were just stepping stones. By being open we attracted the best people and moved the industry forward quickly. That was the real advantage.”

Finding Dory, 2016. [Image: Disney/Pixar]

A decade after Catmull’s counterintuitive insight that Pixar and Disney should remain separate, the approach is paying dividends for both studios. He says the Disney team came in at a critical moment on Pixar’s Inside Out and helped them rethink some major plot elements. When Pixar’s team saw a cut of Zootopia, he identified an obvious problem. Throughout the development of that film, the fox had been the protagonist, the problematic character whose arc we follow. But the Pixar team said it was the kind rabbit Hops who really had the problem. She was prejudiced against predators and it was her that we should follow through a transformation. It was a major breakthrough for the Disney team. Last year, Inside Out won the Oscar for best animated film. This year, Zootopia is the odds on favorite.

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“Creative ideas aren’t like Jenga blocks where they fall apart and you’ve got to start from scratch, though it can feel that way,” Catmull says. “The skill of a good creative leader is being comfortable with blowing up an idea and knowing it will get better.”

Of course, not all of us have the luxury of working so closely with an outside semi-competitive team. But we all have the opportunity to open ourselves more fully to outside criticism, to broadly share what we know and even to seek opportunities to collaborate with our rivals when it drives our industries forward. Catmull has even developed an internal process, known as “The Brain Trust” within Pixar to create a safe space to hit high performing people over the head with a 2×4 when it’s needed.

For Catmull it comes down to a simple mindset shift: “If you think you’re right 80% of the time, you’re deluded. We need to remember we’re always a lot more wrong than we think.”

Despite being left off the Oscar podium this year, Pixar is far from the crisis some are predicting. Finding Dory grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide and Catmull is excited about the upcoming pipeline of films. He’s less optimistic, however about the wider world. Where competitive competition was once a pillar of democracy and of government-funded programs, he believes today’s political culture marked by rancorous competition, quick fix solutions, and a disdain for science spells trouble for the future of innovation.

“After Sputnik, the government funded a lot of experimentation. Today we seem to be following a different approach —just to put up your hackles and fight. What’s always worked is to find smart people and put them in a room to collaborate openly and explore.”

Perhaps it will take a while before those currently in power in Washington get that message. But we all have the ability to move our organizations and teams in the direction of more openness. It may feel unsafe at first to collaborate more, to dig in less, but in a world that faces urgent crises from climate change to bitter ethnic divides, building higher walls is the real danger.

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Jonah Sachs is a co-founder and partner at Free Range, a purpose-driven design and innovation firm. He is the author of Winning the Story Wars and the upcoming book Unsafe Thinking, which will be published in spring 2018.