Great communication and exceptional creativity are two hallmarks of having an excellent company culture. During a conversation with a client last week I was pointed in the direction of Ed Catmull's book Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. As I still cling to the past in the same way one does to the lead of a German Shepherd who is straining to be unleashed, I am still yet to make the transition over to Kindle and therefore ordered the paperback version online.
Whilst I was waiting for it to arrive, I looked online to see if there were any interviews with Ed Catmull, who is currently the president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. I wasn't disappointed. There are tons of interviews with the man himself which can be easily sourced on YouTube, and whilst I eagerly awaited the postman's knock, I watched a couple of videos to sate my appetite.
One word sums up Ed Catmull - inspirational. His approach to creativity, communication and change management is so simple, yet clearly it is monumentally effective. When Disney decided to buy Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, the merger created an interesting dichotomy. On one side you had the phenomonally succesful Pixar, whose unique culture had fostered some of the most innovative and successful films in history. On the other was Disney, a studio with an incredible heritage and without whose influence Pixar certainly wouldn't be where they were, but also whose output over the recent years had been experiencing a notable decline in quality.
When the companies merged, Catmull and executive vice-president John Lasseter, the man credited as being the creative driving force behind Pixar, realised that this situation needed to be handled very delicately. It is important at this point to articulate why it was that Pixar was the subject of such a huge offer from Disney in the first place.
Pixar's company culture is what makes them so successful. They operate within an environment which is designed so that every employee can feel safe to fail and make mistakes. They believe that if you fail together and stay together, you create a special type of unity within that group, so that when your big chance comes along, you are perfectly setup to tackle any problem as a team because you share a vision and will fight for one another.
They also believe that in order to tell great stories, you have to put quality ahead of everything else. Famously during the creation of Toy Story 2, they made a huge change in direction very late on in production. In Catmull's own words:
"You don't know when you are going to hit that truly catastrophic moment on a project...sometimes you will get clues, sometimes you won't. The most important thing is hold on to the emotional core of the story and use that to navigate by. If it means making really big changes last minute, that's what needs to happen, because the quality of the story cannot be compromised."
This mindset is what convinced both Catmull and Lasseter to put up mechanisms to protect the culture at Pixar, as their people were understandably nervous that the merger would lead to big changes in the way that they worked. Their next decision was ensure that both Pixar and Disney studios were to be kept absolutely separate and were strictly forbidden from doing any production work for one another. They then took the principles and philosophy of Pixar and applied it to Disney, who at that time were failing.
Explaining their braintrust and the importance of having a healthy creative culture was one thing. Putting it into practice was another. An environment of safety isn't something you can just give to a group of people, it has to be earned. It took between two to four years for everything to finally click and come together, but it most certainly did happen.
Disney hit both a huge financial and critical success with Tangled in 2010, and last year Frozen surpassed Toy Story 3 as the highest grossing animated movie in history. The important thing is that Disney did this entirely on their own and without any help from Pixar studios. They changed the culture, not the people!
"Most people are creative, and most people want to do well. The issue is not how do you make them be more creative, it's how do we remove the barriers. The barriers are systemic, and hidden, and hard to get at, but if we get rid of them, we then enable those people to become their better selves".