Leadership Lessons from Ed Catmull, Cofounder and President of Pixar

As the co-founder and president of Pixar — not to mention the author of Creativity Inc — Ed Catmull is well known for his expertise in leadership, particularly when it comes to creative teams. In a fireside chat with Box cofounder and CEO Aaron Levie at BoxWorks 2015, he opened up about the lessons he's learned during his storied career building the most influential creative enterprise of the last 20 years.

The goal is only to make a good film.

When Pixar was working on its first full-length animated feature, Toy Story, the team originally thought it would be important to get the story right first, and then build the film from there. As they quickly learned, while it's easiest to get the story right first, "It turns out that's irrelevant," said Catmull. "The goal is only to make a good film."

You have to be willing to iterate inside the process in order to create something good. "If you aren't willing to do iteration because cost is most important, then you can spend less — and make a B product."

Magic happens when ego leaves the room.

Starting with that first film, the team at Pixar has assembled a "Brain Trust" of individuals who assemble after screenings to address problems in their movies. The brain trust has four guiding principles:

1) The director makes the final decision in the room. "If the director knows they can be overriden in that meeting, they'll come to the meeting in a defensive posture. We're always trying to keep fear out of those meetings."
2) Remove the power structure. "Everyone's notes are equal."
3) Shared interest in everyone's success.
4) Give and listen to honest notes.

While the goal is to always live up to these principles, Catmull conceded that this doesn't always happen. "Every once in while it's a flaming disaster," he said. On the other hand, "Every once in a while magic happens: ego is gone from the room. Ideas come and go without people becoming attached to them. Usually happens once per film."

Remove barriers to people thinking creatively.

Over the years, Catmull has realized that the greatest barriers to people thinking creatively come directly from leadership, no matter how vocal leaders are about its importance. "Leaders don't realize they're giving clues to people that they don't want to upset the way things work," he said.

Perhaps more importantly, Catmull defines creativity as "just solving problems." He added, "If you think of it that way, everyone has responsibility for it. You're spreading the creativity around."

Transform failure into a learning opportunity.

One significant barrier to creativity in any organization is fear of failure, which Catmull believes is rooted in the dual understanding of failure that many people hold. "Intellectually, people know failure is good and productive," he said, but there's the second, scary definition of failure you learn in school which never quite dissipates. As a result, "there's a palpable aura of real danger around failure."

The trick is to make sure people are aware that both understandings of failure exist. "Then they can help transform failure into a learning opportunity. But it's not an easy thing."

What's the right number of dumb ideas? Nobody knows.

Catmull also dove into what failure means in the context of a brainstorm, using a two hour meeting as an example. "Zero dumb ideas is a bad idea. Forty dumb ideas is also probably a bad idea- they're using up airtime and they shouldn't be in the room. So what's the optimal number of dumb ideas? We don't know. But we have to feel comfortable operating in that space."

Remove the existential threat to encourage idea sharing.

One of the best decisions made during the acquisition of Pixar by Disney was the choice to prohibit either studio from doing production work for the other. Instead, they have regular summits where the two studios share ideas and best practices — with the understanding that neither is obligated to adopt any best practices from the other. As a result, "there's no existential threat. Because don't have to take best practices from each other, they're completely willing to share ideas." Both groups learn and benefit from the open dialogue.

Can't get enough of the keynote speakers from BoxWorks? Check out the top five moments from the Tim Cook fireside, or see what advice John Chambers has for CIOs- and the world. 

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