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Insights from Pixar’s management philosophy

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I wanted to share some thoughts on an interview recently published by the McKinsey Quarterly, Staying one step ahead at Pixar: An interview with Ed Catmull.

Ed Catmull is co-founder of Disney’s Pixar, which created the world’s first computer-animated feature  film Toy Story, released in 1995. (Apple’s Steve Jobs was one of the other co-founders.)

While the whole interview is worth reading, six ideas stood out here that are useful to review.

Even if you’re really good, your first pass only gets you to B level. If you want to get to A level, then you need to be responsive to the problems you reveal in your attempts. Catmull uses the analogy of building a house. Invariably, as you build, you find something doesn’t work or isn’t what you envisioned. In your organization, have a plan and use it, but don’t be a slave to it if it’s not fulfilling the strategic vision.   

Consciously decide what risks you want to take, be clear on their consequences, and then commit. Catmull highlights how Pixar assembles teams, blending new and experienced staff, getting them to work as a unified group, and ensuring they’re prepared for the heavy lifting of the final production stage. In doing so, they create teams that understand how to work together, but avoid become insular or missing looming hazards. He also discusses their conscious decisions about high and low risk projects, noting that in 20 years, all but one film has been completed.

You have to try hard to make it safe to fail. In retrospect, failures are teaching moments. In prospect, failure can induce fear. Experiments are forward-looking and the risk is failure. But if you aren’t experimenting, how are you stretching your organization to be better or stay ahead of competition?

The cost of moving too quickly on an exit can be higher than waiting longer. Catmull’s perspective is assuming that someone will work out. If they falter, help them. If, after repeated attempts, it still isn’t working, then it’s time to do something. But by acting too quickly, it can induce fear in others. Why? Management can often see things before everyone else does, because they are focused on their jobs. The feeling becomes “if I screw up, I’ll be fired.” Catmull suggests making the change at the point where the need becomes obvious to others. The challenge for management is to identify that moment.

People take their cues about culture and values from what they see, not what they’re told. At Pixar, they had a culture of fun and practical jokes in the early days, but 20 years later, the culture has shifted because the “older people” don’t model that anymore. They have kids, they go home right after work, but they’re wondering why the “new people” don’t have fun like they used to. It’s the unspoken fear making people cautious because they don’t see that it’s ok.

Cultural succession is as important as succession planning. Everyone needs to understand what the core values are. Catmull discusses how Walt Disney was driven by technology. He used the highest technology available in films and theme parks to create the Disney experience. After he died, that energy dissipated from the company because they didn’t fully understand his thinking. Roy Disney Jr (Walt’s nephew) reintroduced the concept of technology because he understood how important it was to Walt’s vision, which led to a relationship with Pixar over objections it wouldn’t save money. Roy understood Walt’s motivations, and that Pixar would energize the company’s animation work.

The full interview is here: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/Staying-one-step-ahead-at-Pixar-An-interview-with-Ed-Catmull