How Pixar Designed a Culture of Collective Creativity | By Gustavo Razzetti (2022)

Mapping Pixar’s candid, creative culture

“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” – Ed Catmull

Pixar’s thriving, creative culture is the result of a systematic approach to churning out lots of ideas over brilliant breakthrough ideas.

Above all, Pixar trusts smart people over processes and ideas. Everybody can talk to anyone. All ideas are welcomed, regardless of where or from whom they originated. Trust means trusting someone even if they screw up. Directors are given unfiltered, candid feedback, but they maintain control of their films.

The Core of Pixar’s Culture: Values and Purpose

Unlike most companies, Pixar doesn’t have a clear mission statement or values. The film company believes that “quality is the best business plan .” However, the company clearly articulates what it wants to achieve in the form of principles.

Pixar’s goal is: “To make great films with great people.”

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”–Ed Catmull

How Pixar Designed a Culture of Collective Creativity | By Gustavo Razzetti (1)

Pixar’s key principles/ values are:

  1. Failure isn’t a necessary evil
  2. Don’t confuse the process with the goal
  3. Quality is the best business plan
  4. People are more important than ideas
  5. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody
  6. Prepare for the unknown
  7. Give good notes (this refers to feedback notes provided during ‘Braintrusts’–see below)

Pixar establishes the following priorities:

Smart people even over breakthrough ideas

Trust people even over the process

Build community over free agency

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Creative vision even over conformism

In most creative cultures, egos and individualism get in the way. Ed Catmull and his team have put a lot of energy and dedication into building a collective creative culture.

Pixar rewards: creativity as a team sport, having fun, excellency (having the same quality bar across all films), and a peer culture (everyone supporting each other across different levels).

Pixar punishes: mediocrity, egos, and Silicon Valley’s culture.

Pixar’s Culture Design Canvas: The Emotional Culture

“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” – Ed Catmull

The above quote captures an obsessive dedication to building a safe culture where people can be candid, experiment, and take risks. Pixar has been building psychological safety by making people comfortable with being uncomfortable as well as supportive peer-to-peer feedback.

Originality is fragile; it requires to see the potential and nurture the “ugly babies.” They are the first iterations of originality, which need encouragement and care before they can grow into beautiful creatures.

As Catmull says, “No Pixar movie ever started out as funny, heartfelt, and well-written as what we see in theaters. In fact, many of them were complete disasters at the start.”

At Pixar, people are expected to get used to the ’embarrassment’ of showing their work in progress. One’s colleagues are not there to judge the work, but to help it grow.

Pixar practices radical candor building on empathy; honesty is not meant to harm others or destroy an idea but to nurture them. Conversely, people don’t pull punches to be polite.

The overall environment supports people and encourages everybody to support each other. Trusting someone is about trusting them even when they screw up.

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Pixar University has become a vital component to make it safe for people to experiment. The belief is that if people aren’t scared, they are not doing their job. At Pixar University, employees learn anything from improv and drawing to screenwriting.

How Pixar Designed a Culture of Collective Creativity | By Gustavo Razzetti (2)

Pixar has a strong feedback culture. Directors appreciate all ideas, regardless of from whom they originated. Divergent perspectives are considered as additive, not competitive.

Issues are shared and addressed to the entire crew at the same time, not cascaded from one level to another. The film company leverages the “vulnerability loop” that happens when two people are vulnerable together.

Pixar Team Rituals

Pixar uses Braintrust meetings to root out mediocrity and to push toward creative excellence. The Braintrust meets every few months to assess a film that’s under development.

According to Catmull, it’s essentially the same as any creative get-together; the only difference is that people give candid feedback in the form of notes. It’s like a version of a peer review, a forum to raise Pixar’s game.

The members of a Braintrust don’t have any hidden agenda. They are not there to steal the movie from the project owners. That’s one essential rule of this method; Braintrusts are formed of a group of peers that are working on another film.

Participants should provide clear notes at the end of the meeting. Good notes should be timely, not too late to fix the problem.

According to Catmull, good Braintrusts’ notes are specific and capture:

What is wrong?

What is missing?

What isn’t clear?

What makes no sense?

At the Tools department, Guido Quaroni instituted “personal project days.” His engineers had two days a month to work on anything they wanted – it didn’t have to be directly related to any particular film.

On Notes Days, Pixar shuts down all work for a day to facilitate a kind of collective coming-together of all employees. People break apart into groups to share their thoughts on various topics to solve a problem. Managers are excluded from Notes Day so that employees can feel freer to offer candid feedback.

Pixar’s Culture Design Canvas: The Rational Culture

Meetings

To help staff and ideas grow, Pixar runs on a steady diet of daily review meetings, 1:1s, and postmortems when projects are completed.

Pixar avoids unnecessary meetings with the mindset that it’s okay (for a senior manager) to walk into a meeting and be surprised. This means getting rid of review meetings with different levels.

“Dailies” are morning sessions to review each team’s work in progress. It’s part of the collective mindset where everyone on the team knows what’s going on.

“Post-mortems” is a discussion about learning from past mistakes or successes. The team gets together to review a complete projet and must address “5 things they will continue to do” and “5 things that they wouldn’t do again.”

How Pixar Designed a Culture of Collective Creativity | By Gustavo Razzetti (3)

Rules

The most important rule at Pixar is that the company doesn’t like rules. However, there are various norms that guide the way the team works and collaborates.

Pixar trusts talented people. The company hires – and bets big – on great, creative people and then gives them enormous leeway.

Failure is encouraged: “Fail early, fail often.”

Catmull identified the initial division between certain areas. He purposefully worked on getting rid of the class structure: technology inspires art and art challenges tech. They both have to work together.

Decisions

At Pixar, film leaders make all operating decisions; their bosses don’t have to second guess or micromanage them. Managers only get involved when production is running into a problem. They intervene to provide support without undermining the director’s authority.

The creative decision-making authority lies solely on the film’s creative leadership. The Braintrust provides input and feedback, but has no authority–it’s up to the director to decide what to do with that input.

Overall, Pixar has a creative culture that is a safe, open, and high-candor environment. The secret of Pixar lies in building continuous introspection. As Catmull said, “If we are successful, we will be equally blind.”

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Sources used for this culture canvas example

To map Pixar’s culture, I used the following resources, among many others:

How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity (HBR)
Pixar’s culture deck

Creativity, INC by Ed Catmull

Pixar University: Thinking Outside the Mouse
No values, no mission statements
Great Ed Catmull quotes

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
Pixar’s purposeto make great films with great people.

FAQs

How is Pixar so creative? ›

At Pixar, daily animation work is shown in an incomplete state to the whole crew. This process helps people get over any embarrassment about sharing unfinished work—so they become even more creative. It enables creative leads to communicate important points to the entire crew at once.

What is Pixar's creative environment like? ›

Overall, Pixar has a creative culture that is a safe, open, and high-candor environment.

What is Pixar's mission statement? ›

Pixar Animation Studios Mission Statement

Pixar's objective is to combine proprietary technology and world-class creative talent to develop computer-animated feature films with memorable characters and heartwarming stories that appeal to audiences of all ages.

What is Pixar braintrust? ›

The Brain Trust is a small group of creative leaders at Pixar who oversee development on all movies. The group came about during the development of Toy Story.

What are the 3 operating principles of Pixar? ›

From Toy Story to WALL-E, Up to The Incredibles, Pixar always employs the same three key design principles–story, believability, and appeal–to create movies that emotionally resonate with nearly any viewer.

What makes Pixar different? ›

Pixar got the most audience ratings because the animated movie they offer is not just for kids but favors a more mature approach to storytelling. They give out emotional films appealing to some real and core truth of being a human.

How is Pixar a learning organization? ›

Pixar - A Learning Organisation - YouTube

Is Pixar innovative? ›

Pixar has achieved legendary levels of creativity not only by hiring great people but also in the way it designs and runs its teams. Entrepreneurs and leaders worry about innovation. This is true of almost every executive in any industry.

What is Pixar's slogan? ›

In a world that is obsessed with preventing errors and perfection, perhaps it's ironic that despite 11 straight blockbuster movies, Pixar cofounder and President Ed Catmull describes Pixar's creative process as "going from suck to nonsuck."

Is Pixar better than Disney? ›

The results showed that Pixar animation is more successful than Disney animation! Pixar has an average critics score of 89% and an audience rating of 82%, while Disney films showed a 80% critics score and a 75% audience score.

How does Pixar animate? ›

They start by breaking down an action into a series of poses called key frames that mark out important positions. Then, they use a computer program to describe how the object moves in between those key frames so that the resulting animation conveys the desired emotions.

What is the purpose of a braintrust? ›

Braintrust is an additive approach. It is a way of other people contributing something (whether idea or criticism). The goal of Braintrust is to broaden your perspective.

What is braintrust company? ›

Braintrust is a blockchain-powered freelancer marketplace that connects technical and design talents with organizations. The marketplace that the company offers a user-controlled talent network that provides enterprises with highly skilled technical and design talent that they need.

How does a brain trust work? ›

A Brain Trust is a small group of trusted advisors or colleagues who provide expertise, insight and advice on new ideas or solutions. Its purpose is to decode problems, design new solutions and constructively criticise where needed.

Why are Pixar movies so emotional? ›

Pixar tells a story of how we learn a lesson and why the journey was worth taking. We learn and feel with the characters through the terrifyingly realistic portrayal of their emotional lives. The stories appeal to our deepest emotions and, thus, make us cry. Because, essentially, Pixar stories are about us.

Why is the Disney Pixar considered to be unique and value oriented merger? ›

The foremost reason behind the success of the Disney and Pixar merger is that investors were able to see the potential of Disney to leverage the computer-animated character of Pixar to be used in Disney's vast network market. We can see the example of “Cars”, the revenue generated by it was around $5 million.

Why is Pixar better than Disney? ›

“It was really surprising to see that despite Disney leading the way with the highest grossing films individually, Pixar films combined had a higher average box office figure, and were more consistent in the ratings they received from both critics and audiences, leading to higher average critics and audience ratings ...

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