Leadership Lessons from Pixar’s near catastrophe

September 12, 2012 Emotional Intelligence  No comments

I am currently reading a story about Pixar Studios and the almost disastrous flop of Toy Story 2.  Two thirds of the way through production after a preview with Disney executives, creative directors John Lassiter and Ed Catmill decided “good” wasn’t good enough.  With less than a year before the project was due they did the unthinkable and threw it all in the trash.    By all accounts the next nine months were beyond brutal; but even today, 13 years and ten films later one of Catmill’s greatest fears is that they will “unlearn” the lessons they learned from making Toy Story 2.

Reviving Toy Story 2 was a process of absolute and sometimes brutal honesty.   Each day began with engineers and illustrators side by side for a frame-by-frame review of the previous day’s work.   In direct opposition to the central tenet of Brainstorming[i] which is “to withhold criticism” every scene was scrutinized, dissected and criticized.  When I first read this it was quite a shock.  I have a difficult time watching my own work without feeling ill, but to start every day with an entire team committed to finding every flaw would be a serious insult on my self-esteem.  I wondered how were they able to do this in a culture where the size of the talent is only surpassed by the enormity of the egos?  Wouldn’t these superstars merely walk across the street and be snapped up by another studio where their talent would be viewed with appropriate unquestioning reverence?

What were the keys that made this kind of excruciating analysis not just acceptable but exhilarating, and how can you apply it in your organization?

  1. Equality of commitment:  All team members were included.  There were no sacred cows or hierarchical boundaries.  Everybody was subject to the same level of scrutiny.

  2. Pursuit of Perfection:  The bar was set so high that no one person, no matter how talented could reach the objective alone.  No one expected theirs to be the finished product.  Instead of being paralyzed by the pursuit of their own personal perfection their philosophy was to “screw up fast, and we will fix it together”.

  3. Plussing:  Every criticism was followed with a committed search for how “we” could do it better.  Instead of being a demoralizing process the intense scrutiny moved solutions from “me” to “we”.  The fear of making mistakes was transformed into the excitement of making progress.

Of course this is only one small part of the Pixar magic.  More than a $7.4 Billion company,  Pixar is a community.  Everything about the Pixar campus is designed to generate unexpected connections.  From the first floor, center stage toilets (Steve Jobs’ idea) to the 18 after hours watering holes, every place has a purpose.  Team members are physically required to “get to know” each other through chance encounters stimulating creativity through the diversity of experience and affinity through their shared environment.

The next time you are planning a meeting or designing a workspace, don’t plan to increase efficiency – design for building relationships.

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