Creative Collaboration at Pixar

A couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article on creativity and collaboration at Pixar.  According to Ed Catmull (President of Pixar), the trick to fostering collective creativity is three fold: place creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders, dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines, and build a culture that encourage people to share their work-in-process and support one another as peers.  A key to creating this culture is implementing processes that drive collaborative behaviors every day.  The article defined two simple, but effective processes which form the foundation of Pixar’s innovation process: the use of daily reviews and the creation of a postmortem process.  Let’s take a brief look at each of these processes to see how they work to drive right behaviors.

The daily review process is relatively simple, but powerful in its effectiveness.  At the end of each day, everyone involved in the creative process shows the progress of their work to the entire team.  Everyone is encouraged to comment on the material presented, but the director makes the final call with respect to the work and the next steps.  By forcing a collaborative approach to presenting incomplete work at the end of each day, people get past the embarrassment of an unfinished product and are more creative as a results.  In addition, the group interaction allows everyone to learn from and inspire each other.  Finally, by establishing a time for the team to meet each day, the director saves time and reduces the opportunities for error by communicating to the entire team at once.

The power of postmortems is forcing the team to take moments for deep reflection and share lessons learned which can be applied to future projects.  At the core of the postmortem process is time spent asking the team to list the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things to avoid.  To keep this process fresh and engaging, the team varies the manner in which they conduct the postmortem each time.  In addition to the top five review, the team employs performance data with which to analyze opportunities for improvement.  Among other data the team collects is the lead time to completion for each activity as well as the number of times something is reworked.  These data points provide both a delivery and quality measure which can be compared against predetermined goals.

At the core of Pixar’s philosophy is a belief that driving innovation depends on finding the right people and putting them in an environment which encourages daily collaboration and taking risk to accomplish great things.  Betting big on people, giving them enormous leeway to create, and providing them with timely, honest feedback sets teams up for success and enables Pixar to consistently turn out award winning products.

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