Lessons in Creativity from Pixar

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Pixar’s success is monumental. The animation powerhouse has brought in billions since Toy Story hit the silver screen in 1995. What Pixar has undeniably is achieved is a redefining of the family film genre. Pixar-produced films have successfully bridged the gap between children and adult audience appeal. The company has produced masterpieces that engage all demographics through strong character development, stunning visuals, solid plots and themes which reinforce the importance of family, overcoming challenges and friendship. From storyboard, script to animation and final cut, creativity underpins the Pixar process.

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, is a master at bringing imagination to life. He has authored the book Creative Inc in which he recommends the ways companies can spark inspiration in their teams and harness their creative output. Let’s take a look at the ways companies and management can apply some Pixar vision to build creativity in their teams.

1. Encourage free communication

At Pixar, a Braintrust between the five men who led the production of Toy Story was developed naturally. This focused, imaginative, smart and funny fivesome would get together to have judgment-free passionate discussions about storylines and direction, allowing them to abandon restrictions and constraints.

Why is this free communication so important?

Catmull claims “there are all sorts of personal, emotional roadblocks that get in the way of the creative process and no one will admit that they are there.” Instead, the members of the Braintrust are empowered to speak candidly without anyone feeling personally attacked. This makes sense: How can you feel creative if you feel censored? Building a Braintrust in any team is the ideal way to brainstorm new projects and initiatives and it also gives everyone a fair and agenda-less way to express their ideas.

2. Managers should manage people

The process from idea origination to execution is something which must be managed objectively. Managers should create an environment where team members are encouraged to share ideas, free from roadblocks and challenges. This often means taking a step back from contributing to the brainstorming session.

“As a manager, you want to focus on the dynamics of your team, not the ideas they are producing,” Catmull says. “Sit back, really look at what’s going on in the room.”

Essentially, managers need to take a proactive approach to managing how ideas are fielded, ensuring all voices are heard, and determining why some ideas make more sense than others. Giving that level of guidance to a brainstorming session gives team members more structure, clarity and most importantly the confidence to contribute.

3. Collaborate across all departments

“When I took my first animation course, I realized that the art and technology side could come together. The images were still very crude at the time, but there was potential there,” Catmull says. “I worked on solving all kind of problems so that images could look good enough for a feature film.”

Often times, it’s impossible to execute an idea without the help or input from another department in a company. Whether it’s marketing clearing an idea for a hashtag for social promotion with legal or engineers working with IT on software update ideas, the sooner you invite all relevant parties to the discussion, the easier it becomes to visualize your idea and learn what it takes to make it come to life.

4. Failure should be constructive

“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover,” Catmull remarks.

It’s impossible in any industry or role to escape failure. In a creative process, it’s almost built into the fabric. Some ideas look great on a whiteboard. They can even make sense on a functional level. But oftentimes, they just aren’t well-received.

Admitting defeat on a project, or accepting that a failed idea can lead to an extremely valuable learning process. Catmull notes that “if you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

Doing a post-idea autopsy as a team is a great way to abandon blame and start making recommendations on how to improve your creative and idea generation processes.

By using these tips, you should start to develop a well-oiled creative function in your departments and teams who produce well thought out, quality ideas. How do you inspire and manage the creative process in your work place? Let us know in the comments below!

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