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Talent and Creative Success

What is more critical to successfully conceiving, producing and launching a new product: good ideas or good people? Ed Catmull, president of the immensely successful Pixar Studios, in a Harvard Business Review article1 is adamant that the people are more important. It is difficult to doubt him. By all accounts Catmull is a VERY effective corporate leader; 100% of Pixar’s movies have been box-office successes. But it is worth examining more closely his assertion about talent and having great people.

Catmull’s reasoning centers around Pixar’s experience in the making of Toy Story 2 in 1996 when the project had to be rescued by the same team that produced the original Toy Story. He notes that the rescuing team did not succeed because of any changes to the main story idea. It was simply that the originally assigned creative team was unable to take the main idea and develop it into a compelling story. The shorthand lesson gleaned from this experience is that bad ideas can be overcome by great people and good ideas will not succeed with mediocre people. Without looking deeper, one might easily conclude that managers should focus on finding the best talent as depicted below.

While many might agree with this formula, it misses the real ways of developing and managing creative processes at all kinds of companies – including Pixar. In fact, after starting with the initial premise of seeking people over ideas, Catmull goes on to explain the more compelling factors that drive performance where creativity and collaboration are essential for success.

Most businesses, including those that produce movies, face two fundamental challenges. First, they have to manage risk in a way that allows under-performing project groups to recover in time before they fail. Second, people with different functional skills and perspectives must cooperate – communicating openly and effectively towards accomplishing larger, non-functional goals. These larger goals lead beyond functional success, enabling people to make great products or deliver great services.

While Catmull asserted that he had to bring in his “A Team” to fix the Toy Story 2 problem, the crisis was caused by management's failure to address the twin challenges of managing risk and building project teams that were able to cooperate. Yes, he needed good people, but his systems and processes (or lack of them) ultimately is what nearly killed the project. And to Catmull’s credit, he learned from the Toy Story 2 crisis, moving on to fix the fundamental problems – leading to a 20-year run of unparalleled success.

So how does your firm, unit or department manage risk and build effective communication, avoiding the pitfalls of failed projects? Here are some ideas that we think are essential and that are, importantly, proven to be successful.

Build a structure that works. One of the lessons from Toy Story 2 for Catmull was that his development department was doing the wrong things, working at cross purposes with how creative work is actually done. Instead of charging the development department with coming up with new ideas, he kept the authority in the hands of the directors and producers for each movie project. The development department’s function became one of support for the creative teams, including finding the right people to be part of the team. During production, all operating decisions are now made by the filmmakers (producer and director); upper management “[doesn’t] second-guess or micromanage them.” Well placed authority makes it probable that people will be creative and solve problems on their own effectively. Says Catmull, “Managers need to learn that it’s okay to walk into a meeting and be surprised.”

Create processes that enable communication and feedback. While Pixar recovered and rescued Toy Story 2, it came at great cost. Catmull notes that because they had to turn the film around in about eight months, people suffered physical trauma such as repetitive movement injuries and personal trauma in their families. From this he developed processes that would mitigate the risk of a project going too far off the rails. Among the things he instituted:
  • The brain trust – A group of the most experienced directors in the company made accessible for the project director or producer to vet out problems or issues. Rather than let a problem go too long, the filmmakers can share their progress to date and get critical feedback. Importantly, these are peer sessions of open discussion with decisions still residing with the team assigned to the project. The key to this process is that the brain trust has no authority in this setting.

  • Dailies – Animation crews share their work in progress to the whole team. Done well, these dailies provide a feedback loop that leaves no surprises at the end. It also opens communication among members of the bigger group. The idea of the dailies (as well as the brain trust) is to create an effective peer culture where the best learning takes place.

  • Postmortems – Also known as debriefing, this is another way to learn and to successfully eliminate the inevitable acquisition of unnecessary processes, protocols and habits.
Going beyond just getting great people, Catmull admits that it doesn’t matter how talented your people are if they cannot work together effectively. This requires managers to create and maintain cooperative contexts where people can communicate and commit to clear common ends. It is instructive in the Pixar case how in the processes described above, managers set the context so that people find it in their best interest to cooperate rather than compete or compromise. We propose a revision to the notion that managers need to focus primarily on acquiring talent – and instead work to implement ideas similar to the ones depicted here:

Focusing on building and maintaining contexts so that "good" people can be creative, collaborative and focused on performance will have the consequence of attracting more talented people. This model is not just for movie companies. All enterprises require creativity, problem-solving and significant collaboration. All managers would be well advised to apply the principles adopted by Pixar, despite Ed Catmull’s oversimplified stance on talent.

1“How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity.” Ed Catmull. Harvard Business Review, September 2008.

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