Collective Creativity

March 14th, 2014 by Kevin


UPDATE: Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull is the featured cover story in the April 2014 issue of “Fast Company” magazine. The article promotes his new book, Creativity, Inc., and highlights the fact that—while the company may have pushed the release of its latest feature—Pixar also has 14 box office hits in a row, suggesting this probably won’t be much more than a blip on an otherwise amazing track record of creative excellence. 

In technology and creativity, few remember a missed deadline. Many remember a substandard product.

News in Q4 2013 about Pixar having to push back the release of The Good Dinosaur until 2015 highlights a common problem in creative and engineering work—managing the pressure to meet a committed deadline without allowing an unfinished and unready product to enter the market.

For whatever the reason, deadlines and quality seem forever at odds. Sometimes feedback doesn’t happen in a timely way. Sometimes the scope of the work changes. Sometimes vendors wander away from the project. And sometimes life intervenes. Process helps mitigate those fluctuations.

But with Pixar and its huge creative projects, process also has to have the right people to be successful.

Quality is Job #1

Cars. Ratatouille. WALL-E. Up. Toy Story 3. Brave—All are movies made by Pixar since 2006, an unbelievable string that included eight straight years with a film earning at least $191 million in revenue and five Oscars for Best Animated Feature.

With a culture of success like Pixar’s, you might wonder, “What happened in 2013 to break the string?” The truth is, making creative success a reliable part of the organizational fabric is difficult to establish, and possibly even more difficult to maintain.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, implies that the company’s utmost loyalty has to rest with quality at the expense of everything else, including production deadlines or other business commitments.

As Catmull explains, “Nobody ever remembers the fact that you slipped a film, but they will remember a bad film. Our conclusion was that we were going to give the [dinosaur] film some more time.”



Pixar’s Case Study On Creativity

But “quality” is hard to understand. Are there more parts to that puzzle than just knowing it when you see it? Catmull seems to say yes, and the “knowing it” part rests in an organization’s ability to distribute creativity across as many people at your company as possible.

In 2008 in the middle of Pixar’s amazing run of blockbusters, Catmull wrote a Harvard Business School case study about creativity as a collective effect of the people you have at your company, not a as a byproduct of great idea generation.

He seems to suggest creativity is a culture—ultimately a guiding priority, not just a process or a resource allocation.

In the study (which you can order here), Catmull highlights five points for how to sort through complex creative projects and find the tens of thousands of little ideas that add up to a coherent whole or story, including how to face the fear of failure with something new—like, say, a movie about a lovesick post-apocalyptic robot.

Catmull says you must:

1. Empower Your Creatives
Establish cross-company teams to originate and refine new ideas. Development doesn’t do “development,” so much as they find people who work well together, ensure healthy team dynamics, and help the team solve problems in the new idea proposals.

2. Create A Peer Culture
Share unfinished work early and often. Get over the embarrassment of imperfection. Encourage people throughout the company to help each other produce the best work—i.e. work you’re proud of—and raise the game of others.

3. Free Up Communication
Give everyone the freedom to communicate with anyone. Knock down hierarchies. Trust people to address difficulties and problems directly. The “proper” channel is to talk with whomever you need to talk to in order to get something done.

4. Craft A Learning Environment
Have fun and learn together. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Give workshops to the rest of the company where you teach your specialty—something that can help the skill development of your coworkers.

5. Get More Out Of Postmortems
Structure postmortems as discussions about what went right and what went wrong. List the top five things you’d do again and the top five you wouldn’t do. Bring in data and metrics. Challenge the subjective assumptions the project contained.

Again, Catmull states the key to organizational creativity is the people and the culture at the company, not just the “bigness” of the ideas, because even the great ideas often sit undeveloped or, just as tragic, get developed hastily and poorly in the service of timeframes or business objectives over work quality.

“I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible,” Catmull says. “Pixar is a community in the true sense of the word. We think that lasting relationships matter, and we share some basic beliefs: Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur.”

Yes, But You Aren’t Making Movies.

Agreed, few are. Creative projects in marketing and advertising agencies have shorter time lines, smaller budgets, and less of an imperative on the creative development process. (And according to the news, Pixar may be having its own trouble doing that in 2014, as compared to where things were five or six years ago.)

But the main point for Pixar is the same for any business, really: Creativity is a group exercise with many wrongs for every right—not a process of rare and sparkling genius limited to a few “creatives” who always hit home runs.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Creativity is a cultural oxygen that runs across the whole company involving everyone, not just a few people in one department.

Creative Changes At McBru

At McBru, we’ve been shifting to incorporate some of Catmull’s five points in our own day-to-day work practices—from sharing presentations on design and other topics at staff meetings, to elevating “proudness” as an overarching standard of measurement, to doing postmortems in a more open and honest way.

Will that help us be better at B2B, high-tech marketing? I think yes! Although we don’t have Hollywood budgets to work with (and when we push a deadline, it doesn’t make national news as a “stumble”), many of the challenges and tradeoffs to producing great creative work are largely the same to me.

Doing work your company is “proud of” is a relative measure, scalable from the big screen all the way to the small screen, from the next blockbuster motion picture, to the next campaign of banner ads and blog videos.

In theory, we should approach them all the same.

So which of Catmull’s five points do you think is most important? Is a tradeoff between deadlines, budget and quality inevitable in any business? Or do you think Pixar’s approach to creativity has little relevance to how other businesses operate?

Interested to hear some opinions out there in the B2B communications world!

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