face a fiery demise?) its excellence is reflected in its track
record: all 14 Pixar movies have debuted at number one.
Ed catmull, founder of Pixar and president of both
Pixar and Disney animation (which acquired Pixar
in 2006), explains in Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the
Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
(random House) how the Pixar way can apply to any
kind of business—and how it has transformed Disney
animation, whose recent Frozen has become Disney’s
highest-grossing animated film. Here, he offers some of
his insights to JWM.
JWM: A law firm or a widget factory might say:
We’re not a creative business. What could Pixar
possibly teach us?
Ed Catmull: creativity is about expression and solving problems, and that applies in a lot of industries.
rather than think you have a small group of problem-solvers at the top of your organization, you should try
to engage everybody in the organization to solve problems—then you have a more robust source of ideas.
JWM: Your key to fostering that creativity is likely
to terrify business leaders: the idea that candor
must override hierarchy. What’s your elevator pitch
for why it’s important?
EC: when power is at play, people temper what they
say depending on whom they’re speaking to. it gets
in the way of what they really think, so it takes them
away from being creative. the constant need is to
figure out how to make it safe for people to say what
JWM: You’ve created a “safe space” in which a
film’s director receives notes from peers (a group
dubbed the Braintrust) on early screenings. What’s
interesting is that the director has the freedom to
address the issues as he or she sees fit. Why is this
creative autonomy important?
EC: it frees up the director to listen because he or
she is not threatened by the notes being given. it isn’t
enough to make it safe to say what you think; we’re also
trying to make it safe to listen to what others are saying.
JWM: Much of this open expression hinges on the
right people. You note: “Find, develop and support
good people, and they in turn will find, develop and
own good ideas.” That seems easier said than done.
EC: when Disney acquired Pixar eight years ago,
Disney animation was fundamentally broken. at first
we didn’t know: was the problem that the people didn’t
have the talent or were they just taught the wrong
things? all we could do was apply the principles of how
to open people up. it didn’t happen overnight—it took
two years for it to stick, but most people got it. my belief is that most people want to do the right thing. if you
start with that assumption, then you work on enabling
them to be creative.
JWM: The public would likely be surprised to
know that all of your movies go from “suck” to
“nonsuck,” as you put it. How do you protect your
ideas while they’re being developed?
EC: if you’re doing something original, it’s pretty
fragile at first. You have to let people go through a
When, in 2013, Pixar needed to cut production costs by 10%, Ed Catmull did
what seemed only natural within his company’s culture: ask everyone in the organization for ideas. During a single day,
which was dubbed Notes Day, more than
1,000 people came together in 171 sessions to speak their minds about improving Pixar. Catmull and other executives
didn’t just listen, they acted: implementing four ideas, planning to act on five others and developing another dozen.
Could any company host its own kind
of Notes Day? Absolutely, says Catmull,
and not just because it’s key to empower
employees to solve the company’s
problems. “If you look at a lot of very
successful companies, you see that they
are extremely successful and then they
fall apart—something goes wrong. You
have to start from a point of recognizing
that you can’t see a number of the prob-
lems. So the question is: How do you
open yourself up to listen to what other
people are saying? The purpose of Notes
Day was to make it a very safe day for
employees to say what they thought.”
NOTES DAY WORKED, SAYS CATMULL,
FOR 3 KE Y REASONS:
1. The day provided a framework by addressing a specific problem—the need
to cut costs by 10%—rather than a
vague desire to improve.
2. The company’s executives championed
the idea; their commitment inspired
employees to commit too.
3. The day was led from within, rather
than by consultants—reinforcing employees’ commitment to the company.
So will Pixar repeat Notes Day? Not exactly, says Catmull. “Here’s the irony: You
usually can’t repeat something that works
successfully,” he says. “If we do it again,
we’ll have to do it in a different way.”
A Day of Honest Feedback