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Pixar's Brad Bird on Fostering Innovation

This week The McKinsey Quaterly asks: what does stimulating the creativity of animators have in common with developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs? Apparently, a lot.

In Innovation lessons from Pixar, McKinsey writes:

Brad Bird makes his living fostering creativity. Academy Award-winning director (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) talks about the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”—restless contributors with unconventional ideas.

Steve Jobs hired him, says Bird, because after three successes (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2) he was worried Pixar might struggle to stay innovative. Jobs told him: “The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out,” Bird quotes his boss as saying “…We want you to come shake things up.” Bird explains to McKinsey how he did it — and why, for “imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.”

The piece is behind McKinsey’s pay wall, but we extract its 9 key lessons below.

Lesson One: Herd Your Black Sheep

The Quarterly: How did your first project at Pixar—The Incredibles—shake things up?

Brad Bird: I said, “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well. We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here.

Lesson Two: Perfect is the Enemy of Innovation

The Quarterly: What sorts of things did you do differently?

Brad Bird: I had to shake the purist out of them—essentially frighten them into realizing I was ready to use quick and dirty “cheats” to get something on screen… I’d say, “Look, I don’t have to do the water through a computer simulation program… I’m perfectly content to film a splash in a swimming pool and just composite the water in.” I never did film the pool splash [but] talking this way helped everyone understand that we didn’t have to make something that would work from every angle. Not all shots are created equal. Certain shots need to be perfect, others need to be very good, and there are some that only need to be good enough to not break the spell.

Lesson Three: Look for Intensity

The Quarterly: Do angry people—malcontents, in your words—make for better innovation?

Brad Bird: Involved people make for better innovation… Involved people can be quiet, loud, or anything in-between—what they have in common is a restless, probing nature: “I want to get to the problem. There’s something I want to do.” If you had thermal glasses, you could see heat coming off them.

Lesson Four: Innovation Doesn’t happen in a Vacuum

The Quarterly: How do you build and lead a team?

Brad Bird: I got everybody in a room. This was different from what the previous guy had done; he had reviewed the work in private, generated notes, and sent them to the person…. I said, “Look, this is a young team. As individual animators, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but if we can interconnect all our strengths, we are collectively the greatest animator on earth. So I want you guys to speak up and drop your drawers. We’re going to look at your scenes in front of everybody. Everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together…

Lesson Five: High Morale Makes Creativity Cheap

The Quarterly: It sounds like you spend a fair amount of time thinking about the morale of your teams.

Brad Bird: In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. [what’s true for a movie is true for a startup!] If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

Lesson Six: Dont Try To “Protect your success”

The Quarterly: Engagement, morale—what else is critical for stimulating innovative thinking?

Brad Bird: The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved. … “You don’t play it safe—you do something that scares you, that’s at the edge of your capabilities, where you might fail. That’s what gets you up in the morning.”

Lesson Six: Steve Jobs Says ‘Interaction = Innovation’

The Quarterly: What does Pixar do to stimulate a creative culture?

Brad Bird: If you walk around downstairs in the animation area, you’ll see that it is unhinged. People are allowed to create whatever front to their office they want. One guy might build a front that’s like a Western town. Someone else might do something that looks like Hawaii…John [Lasseter] believes that if you have a loose, free kind of atmosphere, it helps creativity.

Then there’s our building. Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.

Lesson Seven: Encourage Inter-disciplinary Learning

The Quarterly: Is there anything else you’d highlight that contributes to creativity around here?

Brad Bird: One thing Pixar does [is] “PU,” or Pixar University. If you work in lighting but you want to learn how to animate, there’s a class to show you animation. There are classes in story structure, in Photoshop, even in Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense system. Pixar basically encourages people to learn outside of their areas, which makes them more complete. [and more creative].

Lesson Eight: Get Rid of Weak Links

The Quarterly: What undermines Innovation?

Brad Bird: Passive-aggressive people—people who don’t show their colors in the group but then get behind the scenes and peck away—are poisonous. I can usually spot those people fairly soon and I weed them out.

Lesson Nine: Making $$ Can’t Be Your Focus

The Quarterly: How would you compare the Disney of your early career with Pixar today?

Brad Bird: When I entered Disney, it was like a classic Cadillac Phaeton that had been left out in the rain…. The company’s thought process was not, “We have all this amazing machinery—how do we use it to make exciting things? We could go to Mars in this rocket ship!” It was, “We don’t understand Walt Disney at all. We don’t understand what he did. Let’s not screw it up. Let’s just preserve this rocket ship; going somewhere new in it might damage it.”

Walt Disney’s mantra was, “I don’t make movies to make money—I make money to make movies.” That’s a good way to sum up the difference between Disney at its height and Disney when it was lost. It’s also true of Pixar and a lot of other companies. It seems counterintuitive, but for imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.

27 Responses to “Pixar's Brad Bird on Fostering Innovation”

  1. Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground is the FIRST BOOK ON PIXAR’S CREATIVE CULTURE!

    Ken Blanchard, coauthor of The One Minute Manager® and Helping People Win at Work says, “the book details how this playful organization provides a working environment that encourages imagination,inventiveness, and joyful collaboration. If you dream of creating a more positive climate in your company,this book might just make your dreams come true.”

    Pixar is synonymous with creativity, magical stories, and unforgettable characters, from Buzz Lightyear and Remy the Rat to Mike Wazowski, Nemo, and Wall-E. Behind the fun, however, is a set of deeply routed core values that champion excellence, tap innovation, and encourage collaboration. These are the starting points for pushing your own team or organization to unleash Pixar-style creativity and brilliance.

    In Pixar’s own words, their “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.” The Academy Award-winning animation studio, founded by President Ed Catmull and computer graphics technology pioneer Alvy Ray Smith, has grown incrementally since the release of its landmark feature film, Toy Story. Its films dominate global box offices, and entertain young and old alike with a signature brand of humor, technological advances, and artistry. Modeled upon Walt Disney’s legendary studio of the 1930s, Pixar fittingly became part of the Walt Disney Company in 2006.

    INNOVATE THE PIXAR WAY: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground (McGraw-Hill Professional; December, 2009; HC, $21.95), written by the authors of The Disney Way, deconstructs the elements of Pixar’s success. How does the company repeatedly catch lightning in a bottle? It begins with the story. While Pixar’s story is about bringing the highest levels of talent to the animation process and creating feature films to stand the test of time, your company, too, has a unique narrative. Visualizing it, shaping it, and connecting to it, are the primary keys to success. Whether you’re selling shoelaces, running a startup, or a major animation studio, the story is the key.

    While the company places a premium on quality, it also deliberately encourages a playground atmosphere. The energy, joy, and humor of each Pixar film can also be found at the company’s headquarters in Emeryville, CA. One of the company’s magic bullets is Pixar University (PU), which offers over 100 classes in all facets of animation, from creative writing, sculpture, sketching, improv, and lighting, to motion picture capture. PU classes are woven into the workday; whether a marketer, animator, accountant, janitor, or technical director, all are encouraged to participate for up to four hours a week. Pixar continually seeks to unearth hidden talents within the organization, and is one of the biggest secrets to their success. Creating a tight-knit, collaborative, thoughtful, and playful atmosphere, Pixar’s dedicated team turns the Hollywood – and by extension, corporate – model on its head.

    Pixar is a prime example of a business smartly growing innovative talent and ideas across all levels of employees and backgrounds. Behind the company’s success is the story of its unique approach to excellence and cultivating creativity, bred from the top down. INNOVATE THE PIXAR WAY helps readers discover their own roadmaps for unleashing a creative organization.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Particularly what you said about morale. That should be upper management’s greatest concern. Artists today seem disposable and easily replaceable to management and we artists know that. It definitely affects how we work. And there are many of us who have good ideas we’d like to share, if we thought we’d be treated with respect.

  3. [with typo corrections.. ha] Could we get these guys to revamp health care instead of congress? I mean it, could we? At the very least get Lasseter, Jobs and Bird to have a brainstorming session with them or teach them how to have one.

  4. Satish V.M.

    Forward thinking, critical, big-picture. i feel like a ‘Black Sheep’ sometimes. i am most comfortable around my brothers, when i visit home. Great inspiration.
    Thank You,

  5. lesley

    Aggghh, I want to work at PIXAR sooo bad, I’m so upset Brad’s gone over to live action, I hope he’s back with pixar or any animation company soon, I think he’d do great things at Blue Sky as they seem pretty keen on “making movies to make movies”

  6. Awesome ideas and I can totally relate to how a single passive-aggressive person on a team can wreak havoc on moral and send a project the wrong way – I would love to learn how to spot this type of person early on!

  7. shailendra k.das

    brad bird’s thoughts ,views and the way he works in pixar is inspirational and a brilliant example of effective management and leadership

  8. I loved the idea of structuring you workspace to force interaction between co workers. It is true that when your create an interation that something is passed between the two people. Even a random remark from one person could completely inspire the next. Think about how Dr. House is always solving his cases.

  9. Pecky peckster

    its hard not to be passive aggressive in animation because it takes premeditation to show your colors. I assume he means that animators should work together, which I done think I’m too bad at. It’s the showing colors thing that scares me.

  10. “If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value.”

    Too true. A job without good morale isn’t a mission, it’s just a paycheck.

    Bad morale makes the best people with the best prospects quit first. Then the death spiral sets in.

  11. I love love love that Brad Bird said that not all shots are created equal, they don’t all have to be perfect. That sort of insight is what makes him successful. Thanks for sharing.

  12. ” Passive-aggressive people—people who don’t show their colors in the group but then get behind the scenes and peck away—are poisonous.”

    He just described almost all of the upper and middle managment at Disney Feature Animation in the late 90’s to the present day. Will John Lasseter and Ed Catmull be able bring the “Pixar culture” to present day Disney and have it take root and flourish there ? Let’s hope so .

  13. This is great stuff! I like the fact that Brad seeks out those on the fringes of the bellcurve, works for honest critique of work and builds morale with a firm hand. More businesses should be run like Pixar if they want to be as successful in their pursuits as Bird is in his.