This Is the Secret to Pixar’s Monster Success

3 minute read

How on earth does Pixar do it?

The computer-animation production company has turned out 14 box-office blockbusters in a row. Rave reviews. Great screenplays.

Now, Ed Catmull, one of the company’s founders, has written a book, Creativity Inc., which promises to clear up a bit of the mystery. In an excerpt prepared for Fast Company, Catmull explains that one of the company’s “key mechanisms” is the “Braintrust,” which meets every few months or so and operates on the following principle: “Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems and encourage them to be candid.”

Catmull says that there are two important characteristics of the Braintrust. The first is that it offers much-needed perspective. “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process,” he writes. “Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see?”

The second is that the Braintrust concerns itself with the task, not the person. “The film—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope,” he says. “This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.”

Peter Drucker would have surely been taken with Catmull’s insights, and in fact we’ve covered a number of these points before, including the importance of candor, trust and perspective.

But one area worthy of elaboration is the need to make sure the work at hand doesn’t get too personal.

Drucker recognized that many people identify closely with their jobs—and so it’s not surprising that they can take it hard when their ideas are questioned or criticized. A person’s “relationship to his work underlies all of man’s life and achievements,” he wrote in The Practice of Management.

And yet, like Catmull, Drucker thought it crucial for people not to view challenges to their ideas as a personal affront. “Emotions always run high” over key decisions, Drucker noted. “The smart thing is to treat this as constructive dissent and as a key to mutual understanding.”

At the same time, those doing the questioning need to be careful not to make it personal. They must focus on “What is right?” rather than “Who is right?” “To put personality above the requirements of the work is corruption and corrupts,” Drucker asserted. “To ask ‘Who is right?’ encourages one’s subordinates to play safe.”

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