The Pixar-Inspired Guide to Managing a Creative Company

There is a lot of talk about the creative industry and how it has been changing. This article will explore the changes in the creative industry, as well as offer some advice for managing a company that is also a creative business.

The managing creativity: lessons from pixar and disney animation is a guide that uses Pixar’s and Disney Animation’s stories to show how a company can create a culture of creativity.

All quotes may be credited to Ed Catmull unless otherwise indicated.

Creativity must be safeguarded. This is never more true than in the workplace, where a creative culture is prized and at risk of extinction if not cultivated.

Ed Catmull discusses his experience as a manager of Pixar, one of the world’s most renowned creative animation companies, in his book “Creativity, Inc.”

More than that, Ed provides a variety of beginning ideas for individuals who want to work in an atmosphere that encourages creativity and problem solving.

“My duty as a manager, in my opinion, is to establish a fruitful atmosphere, maintain it healthy, and keep an eye out for anything that threaten it,” Ed adds.

[pullquote] [pullquote] [pullquote] [pullquote] [ “My duty as a manager, in my opinion, is to establish a fruitful atmosphere, maintain it healthy, and keep an eye out for anything that threaten it.” [/pullquote] This book is about the stumbling obstacles to creativity and achievement that go undetected; things like uncertainty, instability, lack of honesty, and that which is concealed from our perspective.

These are the elements that you should pay attention to and interact with as a manager of a company where creativity and innovation are important parts of day-to-day operations, while recognizing that you may be incorrect or that your mental model may be inadequate. You can only expect to learn once you acknowledge that you don’t know.

As we evaluate some of the major ideas from “Creativity, Inc.,” I ask you to join me on this little trip of forgetting and learning.

And, when you near the conclusion of the essay, please provide us with your comments so that we may continue and extend the discussion. What, in your opinion, should a creative business consider in order to avoid succumbing to fear and the other issues mentioned below? What is a manager’s role in this kind of business if micromanagement is not an option?

Honesty and sincerity are required.

“If left unchecked, a lack of honesty eventually leads to dysfunctional settings” — Ed Catmull. Image Walt Disney Pictures owns the rights to the images.

[pullquote] “It’s tough to tell the truth, but it’s the only way to guarantee greatness in a creative business.” [/pullquote]

You are not using your workers’ full potential if you operate in an atmosphere, or expect them to work in an environment, where they feel compelled to hold back for fear of repercussions.

Worse, you won’t be able to create “excellent art,” which is a need for creative businesses such as advertising firms and film production organizations.

To address this issue straight on, you must establish an atmosphere in which expressing one’s thoughts and ideas is encouraged rather than penalized. You must also understand that you may hear things that you do not want to hear. You may be informed, like John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s Creative Directors, that what you’re doing has irritated others or slowed down work and development. The trick is to accept and act on such criticism gracefully. Change what has to be done so that everyone may live in the greatest possible environment.

Notes Day, a sort of collective coming-together of all Pixar workers, who then split into groups to exchange their ideas on different subjects in order to solve a problem, is one of Pixar’s main vehicles designed to dig out problems and subsequently to fix them. Managers are not allowed to participate in Notes Day, so workers may feel more comfortable providing honest comments.

However, Ed claims that persuading workers to be “honest” is more difficult than you would imagine. You must first be willing to hear the things you don’t want to hear, as well as ensuring that workers feel comfortable giving candid criticism.

In fact, since “honesty” is such a loaded word, you should begin by rephrasing it.

Whether you ask any employee if they should be honest, they will almost certainly answer yes. After all, dishonesty is the polar opposite of honesty, and no one believes they should be dishonest. Of course, it is in the nature of life that we are not always honest in order to protect others or ourselves. That doesn’t imply we’re lying; it just means we sometimes hold back or aren’t completely honest.

“This presents a quandary,” Ed adds. On one level, the only way to grasp the facts, concerns, and subtleties we need to solve problems and cooperate successfully is to communicate completely and honestly, without withholding or misleading information.”

So we’ll start by looking for a term that doesn’t have the baggage and bad implications that “honest” has. We must replace it with honesty.

Candor is defined as the characteristic of being forthright, open, and honest in one’s communication.

“The freedom to express ideas, views, and critiques is a characteristic of a healthy creative culture.” If left unchecked, a lack of honesty leads to unhealthy environments.”

One of the main reasons Pixar established “The Braintrust” was to address this issue. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it goes like this:

“Place brilliant, passionate individuals in a room together, give them the task of finding and solving issues, and encourage them to be open and honest with one another.”

Braintrust sessions are used by Pixar to weed out mediocrity and strive for creative brilliance. The Braintrust meets every few months to evaluate a film presently in production. According to Ed, it’s basically the same as any other creative gathering; the only difference is that since they’ve been asked, individuals are more likely to offer frank (and therefore honest) criticism.

“I like to think of the Braintrust as Pixar’s peer remark, a venue that guarantees we stay on top of our game—not by being prescriptive, but by providing honesty and thorough analysis.”

Knowing whether something is or is not working at a creative business—or any company that aspires to be the best at what they do—comes down to a company of workers who feel comfortable providing honest feedback.

And don’t assume you’re done after you’ve built this ecosystem. As a manager, you must continue to ensure that workers feel free to be open and honest.

Fortunately, some of the roadblocks you’ll face are the topics we’ll discuss next.

Allow fear to loosen its hold and embrace failure as a necessary part of the creative process.

Sully and Boo

“Mistakes aren’t an unavoidable part of life. They aren’t at all wicked. They’re an unavoidable result of trying something new,” says Ed Catmull. Photo credit: Flickr

Avoiding failure is something many of us, particularly managers, aim for, whether consciously or unconsciously. Fear of failure, on the other hand, is an adversary of innovation.

Accepting that errors are an unavoidable part of the creative process is the most difficult thing to accomplish. Then it’s up to you to empower your workers to accept responsibility and deal with errors.

The “Toyota Story,” as Ed refers to it, is an excellent illustration of this. Only quality-control inspectors and higher management had the authority to stop the assembly line in the early days of assembly line production, which was pioneered by the Ford Motor Company. Hierarchy ruled in this system.

Then, in 1947, Toyota developed a new model, inspired by statistician W. Edwards Deming’s ideas. Employees were given complete management of the assembly line, with the duty of identifying and resolving any issues that arose. If a single employee notices anything incorrect, the whole manufacturing line may be stopped. The favorable outcomes were almost immediately apparent, and Japanese businesses were renowned for their product quality, productivity, and market share.

Everyone had a voice and the ability to make a difference in this system. Managers had let go of their fears and realized that they needed to trust their workers if they wanted to really stand out and correct wrongs.

Toyota’s example demonstrates that allowing workers to take ownership of issues not only speeds up problem solving, but also improves the final product.

You must accept the fact that your workers will make mistakes from time to time. However, you must put your faith in them to correct the errors. Trust is the most effective strategy for overcoming fear. Let’s start there. After all, you recruited them for their intelligence, right?

Around Pixar, producer Andrew Stanton is renowned for saying things like “fail early and fail quickly” and “be incorrect as fast as you can.”

Start there and work your way up from there. After all, the quicker you make mistakes, the more quickly you can learn and adjust.

[pullquote] “If having a completely fleshed-out, set-in-stone strategy is your main objective, you’re simply increasing your chances of being unoriginal.” [/pullquote]

What’s worse than failure is the desire to avoid it. This is the sort of mindset that will condemn you to failure. As a creative firm, you must embark on projects that may fail, and you must understand that how you respond to failure is what matters most.

“Any failure has two components: the event itself, with all of its accompanying sadness, bewilderment, and humiliation, and our response to it. We have control over the second half.”

You eliminate obstacles to creative involvement by confronting failure. “Dread is one of the most significant obstacles, and although failure is unavoidable, fear should not. The aim is to decouple fear and failure—to create an atmosphere where making errors does not fill your workers with dread.”

Remember that making errors isn’t always a negative thing, particularly if you’re doing something new or unique. When it comes to creation, mistakes are unavoidable. What counts most is how you respond to those errors and what you learn from them.

People, on the whole, have good intentions. Trust that they really want to assist you in resolving your issues. This is one of the most effective methods to cope with anxiety while still being honest and upfront with your workers.

Recognize the ravenous beast and safeguard the unattractive infant.

Finding Nemo Feed the Beast Mode

“The Beast’s appetite manifests itself in deadlines and a sense of urgency. That’s a wonderful thing, as long as the Beast doesn’t go out of hand. And that, my friends, is the difficult part” – Ed Catmull. Walt Disney Pictures owns the rights to this image.

The conflict between operating in “feed the beast” mentality and producing something of good quality is enormous for most businesses and management, since success often leads to the need to repeat and repeat fast.

After all, quality is the first thing to go. “The unknown” may fail, which implies it will take longer to achieve achievement, even if the reward is higher in the end.

This is when the term “ugly baby” comes into play. Ugly babies (new ideas) must be safeguarded, in part because “originality is fragile,” and in part because they are especially susceptible to “the beast”—the drive that forces workers to replicate what has succeeded in the past rather than develop something new.

“Our duty is to shield our kids [new ideas] from being evaluated too soon,” Ed explains. It is our responsibility to safeguard the new.”

It’s important to note, however, that preserving the new does not imply that no one may change it.

“When I argue for the preservation of the new, I use the term in a somewhat different way. I’m implying that although an original concept may be unwieldy and ill-defined, it is also the polar opposite of established and entrenched—and that is exactly what makes it so thrilling.”

That’s why Pixar’s fresh concepts are dubbed “ugly babies.” They are the first manifestations of creativity, and they need nurturing and nurturing before they can mature into fully developed ideas. These are the “ugly babies” who will grow up to be great leaders (AKA great products or solutions).

Consider how this idea may be used in your own organization. Do you have processes or people in place to safeguard and foster fresh ideas? How much of everything you do is to feed the beast that is always present? Can you find a way to reconcile these two ideas?

Recognize that your achievements will put pressure on you to succeed again, which may lead to you returning to “feeding the beast” mentality. Also, keep in mind that if you’re constantly pushing things through the pipeline simply to seem to be doing so, you’re inhibiting the sort of “organic ferment that feeds genuine creativity.”

It’s OK if you’re not a creative agency. However, if you let the “beast” to dominate you in any way, you will become unoriginal.

Expect the unexpected and be open to change.

Up Balloon Pixar - Doing Something New

“We have to respond to unanticipated issues with unanticipated solutions,” says Ed Catmull. Image Walt Disney Pictures owns the rights to the images.

It’s impossible to avoid change. You cannot develop if you do not modify. Working with change is, after all, what it’s all about when it comes to being creative.

“We must respond to unanticipated challenges with unanticipated solutions.”

The reality is that if you create space for the unknown—all those unexpected events—the unknown may provide you with inspiration and creativity. Not everything you do or everything that occurs to you or your business will be predictable.

“Acknowledging and embracing randomness helps us react positively when we are surprised,” says the author.

The truth is that you’ll never be able to account for all of the factors that went into a project’s success or failure. You’ll be unduly affected by outside observers’ views and analyses if you don’t understand that random things happen. Your duty is to create space for the unexpected events that will inevitably come, to be at ease with their occurrence, and to be ready to deal with them.

After all, it is only the unknown that may provide you with inspiration and creativity.

The significance of being aware of the concealed

Be Aware of the Hidden - A Bug's Life

“You will be poorly equipped to lead if you don’t attempt to uncover what is invisible and grasp its nature” – Ed Catmull. Walt Disney Pictures owns the rights to this image.

Another thing Ed teaches us is the significance of being aware of what is concealed from view.

Simply put, this implies that certain things are more apparent to some people than to others. This is one of the reasons you should start by promoting a honest culture, and another reason you should work to discover and comprehend what is concealed from view.

To begin, recognize that there are a lot of variables that are — and always will be — out of your field of sight. As a manager, it’s your duty to figure out what’s getting in the way of development.

You should also be conscious that your mental models—the way you view the world based on your experiences and knowledge of it—will vary from others’ and will have an impact on how you function.

Just as you have to accept failure as an unavoidable part of the creative process, you must also accept that there are things that are concealed from your perspective or comprehension.

“We aren’t aware that much of what we believe we see is really our brain filling in the blanks.” The delusion that we have a full picture is quite convincing.”

If you’re adaptable and don’t mind change, you should try to figure out what’s getting in the way of your development.

“Candor, safety, study, self-assessment, and safeguarding the new are all strategies we may use to face the unfamiliar while minimizing turmoil and anxiety. These ideas…could aid in the discovery of previously unknown issues.”


And, if you simply want a collection of motivational quotations about creativity and management, Jonathan Michael, our Community Manager, has put together a fantastic slideshare.


What have you learnt about managing or working in a creative firm?

Naturally, I wasn’t able to compress the whole book into one essay, so I had to leave out several extremely important management principles. If you want to discover more, you’ll have to read the book. Believe me when I say that it is well worth your time to read. It is, in fact, my favorite nonfiction book of the year!

More importantly, start thinking about what your role as a manager is, like Ed did many years ago. Ed’s goal is to establish a fruitful and healthy atmosphere in which new ideas may be formed and nourished, while also keeping an eye out for anything that undermine or endanger new ideas or the environment.

Leave your views in the comments section.

Is there anything more you’d want to add to Ed Catmull’s to-do list?

The pixar story team is a creative company that specializes in Pixar-inspired films and television shows. They have been producing these projects since 1996.

Related Tags

  • pixar organizational culture
  • what makes pixar unique
  • pixar business strategy
  • pixar business model
  • pixar employee development
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