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Innovation Case Study Pixar Movie

Creativity, Inc., a highly rated and best-selling book by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, has some valuable insights on fostering a culture of creativity in business organizations. We've all seen that encouraging innovation is a major focus—if not the biggest focus—of successful companies. From Google's policy of allowing 20 percent of employees' time to be used for their own project ideas to Adobe's kickbox program, smart organizations remove barriers to innovation.

I enjoyed Catmull's book so much that I was inspired to apply some of his practices in my own software testing and development organization. I've distilled the key insights and practices from his book here. Each section begins with a quote from Catmull in the book. Hopefully, they will be as motivating to you as they were to me when I first read them.

1. Encourage straight talk

"If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem."

According to Catmull, this idea is the core of Pixar’s magic. Straight talk is about putting product quality first, and that requires putting egos aside and speaking honestly. Although it sounds simple, it's one of the hardest things to implement. Employees might have an understandable fear of saying something they think is stupid and looking bad; they might be concerned about offending someone or getting into a conflict; or they might be wary of stepping on the ego of a more senior colleague. All of these factors can get in the way of open communication.

Pixar approached the challenge by creating what it calls a braintrust, which is a platform for “safe zone” meetings. In these meetings, participants from various areas of expertise are invited to review a specific project while leaving their titles at the door. They are encouraged to speak up as equals and give their honest feedback and thoughts. The purpose of each meeting is to promote the product rather than the participants. Their feedback can address what isn’t clear or anything that seems like it's wrong or missing. However, this feedback doesn’t have to include a proposed solution. Feedback that does include a proposed fix is viewed as one of several recommendations. In the end, the facilitator can decide what to take from it.

In my job as a User Experience team lead at a large enterprise, I work on several projects at any given time and come across many opportunities to encourage straight talk. I often find people discussing issues with products or processes among themselves in the corridors or around the watercooler, but everyone would benefit if they made their voices heard. We’ve already started encouraging open talk by teaching managers and employees how to give and receive feedback (see next section). Our next step will be to hold braintrust sessions to discuss in a neutral environment a specific product, process, strategy, or anything else that we need to talk about.

2. Learn how to receive feedback

"A lot of people believe they know what's right and can't listen to advice."

People are often emotionally bound to their own ideas, and when it comes to defending the idea, reason can give way to defensiveness and emotion. Catmull stresses the need to remember that our ideas are not a reflection of ourselves. Before rushing to defend our idea, we must put our egos and emotions aside, and try to listen to feedback even if we don’t agree with it. As Catmull says, receiving feedback is a skill that can be learned if we understand that the film, not the filmmaker, is under the microscope. Every piece of honest feedback can lead us to a deeper understanding and new ideas.

In my organization, I’m working on encouraging feedback from three different directions:

  1. Top down: We are working on courses that will be included in our management training to teach different techniques for leading brainstorming sessions, and on how to listen to input without being defensive. These are skills that can be learned, although it does require practice. As our managers encourage their teams and colleagues to provide their inputs and insights, we are moving in the right direction. Instead of a culture where the most important opinion is the HiPPO’s (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), we’re moving toward a culture in which participants see managers as facilitators who encourage a wide array of sources, functions, and job levels to share their insights without judgement.

  2. Bottom up: We also need sessions for employees to practice giving feedback without hesitation or apology, but in a constructive way. We also want everyone to learn how to brainstorm effectively and efficiently with their colleagues and managers.

  3. Parallel: Create and encourage a culture of innovation through collaboration. In my organization, we have an online program that encourages employees to contribute and suggest ideas for new products or enhancements. These suggestions are rated by the employees themselves and are then mediated by an innovation committee. We’ve been doing this for the past few years at my company, and the highest-scoring suggestions go into an incubation mode, which means that management will give them the time and support to form teams and work on their projects during company time. The results have been great. I myself serve as a "creativity agent coach," which means I mentor innovation teams to help them refine their ideas and provide insight from additional angles.

3. Collaborate with other experts

"Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere."

At Pixar, decision-making gets better when team members draw on collective knowledge that comes from people with a wide variety of expertise. This gives the team different points of view, widens its perspective, and provides it with more ideas and approaches to think about. Engaging employees and managers from all levels of seniority ensures two things:

  • People from all ranks become stakeholders in solving the problem.
  • There’s an optimal combination of the big picture and little details to enable solutions that are both strategic and realistic.

We started to adopt this process by pulling selected developers, testers, and writers into the ideation process or into focus meetings, even if they were not directly involved with the project or process. We encourage everyone to give constructive feedback without hesitation or apology. The feedback can be about the process, the product strategy, the product attributes, and much more. We found that this feedback improves our products, and just as important, the team members understand that they are truly a part of the process, which motivates them to contribute even more. As our product managers see the benefits from the process, they engage other parts of the organization to provide even more feedback, creating a positive cycle.

4. Don’t fear failure

“The reality is—new ideas are fragile. They don't look good.”

Catmull and his team don’t wait for things to be perfect before sharing them. They share early and often, so they can get feedback into the process before things are baked. This not only enhances what they are working on, but can also provide an early indication that they are on the wrong track and need to make some adjustments before continuing.

Fear of failure can often get in the way of delivering outstanding creative products, so an organizational culture should encourage taking risks as an activity that can move things forward. There will always be errors to fix, but if you wait until the end of the process to deal with them, the cost of fixing, as well as the cost of lost creativity, could be too great.

Other successful organizations also believe in mitigating the fear of failure. To quote Elon Musk

Pixar is an amazing business. Built on imagination and creativity, it harnesses the potential of digital technologies to create the most engaging characters and films. When writing my latest book “Gamechangers” I got the opportunity to explore what life is really like at Pixar, and the culture that creates the most inspiring stories …

In 1979 Star Wars creator George Lucas and computer scientist Ed Catmull established the foundations of what was initially a digitally-enabled special effects business. Seven years later Steve Jobs acquired the studio, renamed it Pixar, and gave birth to some of the most successful animated films – like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Today it is the creative heartbeat of the Disney world, and one of the world’s most innovative businesses.

Pixar is a digital content business, and in many ways that’s what brands are today. Beyond the products and services which they support, brands are about ideas, stories, relationships and communities, and the capturing and sharing of them increasingly digitally, virtual experiences which become reality.

So here are 12 insights from Pixar, inspiration for every business leader:

1. Imagineering – ideas are the starting point, driven by insight and experience, but more often through imagination often through the creation of a “imagine if” scenario which is gradually scoped out and brought to life from the future back.

2. Creative fusions – this is not an ingredient, but the essence of the whole business, where the creative process defines the organisation, its operational and commercial models, enabled by the fusion of creative talents.

3. Deep immersion – thinking like the character, and like the audience, is the skill of the animator – recruiting people who are great actors, who can put themselves inside the heads of others, see and feel, think and act like they would or want.

4. Storytelling – the core narrative that brings together characters and experiences, in a way that adds context as well as the plot, immerses and captures the imagination of the audience, and makes it memorable and talked about.

5. Humanity – whilst technology is essential to a Pixar movie, in terms of production and distribution, it is not what matters most – these are human stories, where the characters tap deep into the emotions and psyche of its audiences.

6. Moving you – a Pixar movie is fun and entertaining, gripping and memorable, but more than anything it moves you – it inspires you, it makes you think, it challenges your prejudices, or makes you cry with happiness.

7. Viral infections – these stories are truly contagious, becoming the “must see” for generations of children – more than just advocacy, their stories and the desire to watch them, spread like wildfire.

8. Branded content – the business is a phenomenal example of a large and complex brand architecture that really works, with each brand clear and distinctive – Pixar is a brand, Toy Story is a brand, and Buzz Lightyear is a brand.

9. Personality – at each level, the brands are more about a sense of character, attitude and behaviours, rather than names and logos. Indeed as long as the essence of the brand is strong, the visualisations can flex and change.

10. Content spinning – beyond the movie, licensing each level of brands across many different products, adding to the experience – from theme parks and computer games, to books and clothing – all part of the business model.

11. Never ending – Pixar is a relentless stream of creative success, replicating the model with ever more innovative stories, stories which themselves have no end – living, evolving – Toy Story 3 was just as good as the original.

12. Inspired leaders – a creative business is by definition chaotic and unstructured, but that’s why leadership matters more – an inspiring purpose, a shared direction, confidence and clarity, led by an energising leader.

The parallels for brands and marketing are everywhere in Pixar… the pivotal role of the CCO and the creative team within the business, the primacy of audience, the bringing together of talents, the nurturing of ideas, the building of personality, the pursuit of compelling narratives, the dreams and emotions, always delivering on time and to budget. And a relentless stream of success.

Maybe brands need to own more of their own creativity, rather than being subservient to their agencies. Maybe they need to immerse themselves deeper in the world they are trying to simulate and stimulate, to challenge each other, to unlock and mesh their talents, in a more sustained and evolving way. Indeed the marketing departments of Apple and Zappos are more like creative studios, the hub of business thinking, delivering strategies and innovations, as well as brands and communication.

Lassiter describes the process as “telling a great story, but not too predictably” maybe like a marketing programme needs to evolve rather than be a series of quickly discarded campaigns. He talks of “taking people to another world” which equates to the ability to reframe brands in contexts that have more relevance for audiences, and more scope commercially. He talks about “characters that people develop a deep bond with” which is at the heart of building an emotional connection, doing more for people, creating a brand they love.

Of course, it is the whole story of Pixar which is a lesson for brands today, not just the way in which Pixar themselves use their brands. Few brands, few marketing leaders, can have achieved the success of Lassiter and his team, either in terms of global awards or commercial results.

Most important, is to apply the lessons of Pixar’s creative process to the challenge of brand building. This is where many marketers are falling behind, and where many business leaders fail to recognise its importance and impact.

This article is an extract from “Gamechangers: Creating Innovative Strategies for Business and Brands” by Peter Fisk.

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