David Toole: What are institutions for?
Ed Catmull, co-founder and president, wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2008 that Pixar’s unprecedented success (by then, nine blockbuster films in 14 years) has not been the result of luck but of “adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk.”
Catmull notes that Pixar executives have to resist the “natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which … is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new.” Management’s job is “not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur,” he says. Catmull goes on to note that the capacity for recovering from failure rests in talented people.
The challenge, Catmull says, “is getting talented people to work effectively with one another. That takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time. What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity. If we get that right, the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places.”
Note that the goal of constructing a supportive environment is to unleash everyone’s creativity -- and that “construction” is more than a metaphor.
“Most buildings,” Catmull says, “are designed for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters.” Particularly in creative endeavors, he says, “barriers [between disciplines] are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”
Pixar removes such barriers not only through the arrangement of physical space but in two of its foundational operating principles: “Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone”; and “it must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.” These principles are supported not only by the space itself but by Pixar’s embodiment of transformative leadership.
“In filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development,” Catmull says, “creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. … Every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. … The leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the ones that fit into a coherent whole -- that support the story -- which is a very difficult task. … The process is downright scary. Then again, if we aren’t always at least a little scared, we’re not doing our job.”
One of the benefits of always being a little scared is that it guards against complacency, which is the enemy of creativity.
Catmull credits Walt Disney with understanding this aspect of creativity. “He believed that when continual change, or reinvention, is the norm in an organization, … magical things happen.”
Catmull ends his account of Pixar by noting his 20-year pursuit of making the first computer-animated film. His efforts culminated in “Toy Story,” after which, Catmull confesses, “I was a bit lost. But then I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to help create the unique environment that allowed that film to be made. My new goal became … to build a studio that had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic.”
Openness to fear, risk and failure; nurture of trusting and respectful relationships; pursuit of hard truths; the freedom of everyone to communicate and offer ideas; loyalty to one another and to collective work; recognition of the value of inadvertent encounters; commitment to breaking down barriers; reinvention as the norm; a vibrant community of passion and accomplishment that serves as a magnet for others, especially youth -- and all in the service of something extraordinary, even something magical.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that we find all that in Pixar?
Sometimes God and the gospel get out ahead of the church. Christian leaders should take that both as grounds for hope and as a reminder of what Christian institutions are for.