I'm preparing for the annual father's day trek to the new Pixar release. Only a couple of days away and I'm wondering if this will be the annual pilgrimage of sibling fighting that I have to referee or if my kids (now adults) will stop bickering long enough to make me feel like I did a good enough job as a dad raising them to get me to the next holiday. Like I say, media bonds the family and all you have to do is put in the time. I'm putting the odds at 50-50. Yet, I am already digressing.
Aside from the greatness that Pixar movies provide from an entertainment point of view, they go much deeper for the Media Guy. They seem to focus on the genesis of creativity and collaboration. It's hard to fathom that Pixar has drawn some of its finest inspiration from napkin sketches. The democratic collaboration methods that Pixar has chosen to adopt.
Design thinking enthusiast John Spencer has penned down 10 lessons from Pixar that touch on creativity and collaborating with other professionals.
Creativity Isn’t A Solitary Effort
People often romanticize creative people as loner types feverishly scratching papers each time they get an ‘aha’ moment. However, Spencer believes that the greatest creative ideas root from entire teams.
Pixar empowers its people to offer their input. Its non-hierarchical structure, “from the meetings to the decision-making to the fact that nobody gets a special parking spot,” is possibly one of the reasons why its ideas flow so smoothly but vividly.
Critique Doesn’t Have to Wreck Creativity
Spencer describes that when you have trust and transparency, constructive feedback can inspire creative thinking. This is in line with what Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull famously said: “We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.”
There is Power in Pivoting
Pixar first started as a technology firm before branching out to filmmaking. It’s characteristic for the company to focus on a concept, and then pivot out to new ideas until the overall result works.
“I loved seeing how movies like Monsters, Inc. evolved over the years of planning,” remarks Spencer, “…pivoting doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you are being flexible and willing to improve.”
Play is Important
Pixar isn’t an all-work-and-no-play enterprise—celebrations, parties, and retreats, are integral to its culture. The company even encourages employees to decorate their desks with little trinkets.
Some of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments are derived from producing short films. These shorts are typically avenues for testing out new ideas, as well as a means to having small teams pick up a wide range of new skills.
“If you’re working on a long project, you will get tired,” Spencer admits. “It will become a grind. But play allows you to find energy, reconnect with your group and ultimately hit creative breakthroughs.”
Trust the Process
Pixar might work pretty flexibly, but it also comes with its own structures and rules. Without these, creativity becomes an overwhelming process.
Spencer highlights a quote from Catmull: “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.”
You Can’t Value Risk-Taking and Unless You Allow for Mistakes
This theme popped up often but in a way that was much more meaningful than the typical “embrace your mistakes” mantras that you see on social media. It’s the idea of having a growth mindset and knowing that experimentation means mistakes will occur. This is such a sharp contrast to a story in the book where Steve Jobs fires an Apple employee in front of the entire company. By contrast, Catmull wanted Pixar’s employees to feel the freedom to make mistakes and grow as a result.
Art and Science are Complimentary
This was one of the earliest themes. I’ve seen STEM folks who bemoan the A added in STEAM. However, I am struck by the fact that there is artistry in science and so much science in the art of storytelling. A similar thought is that you can create something innovative and timeless at the same time. So, as students engage in creativity, we need to explore how your collaborative processes honor both art and science.
We Need Mental Models to Battle Fear
Creativity is scary. I have had moments in creative work when I felt terrified. I worried about what people would think. I worried about entering the unknown without any assurance that I would create what I wanted to create. What I loved about this book is the reminder that the fear never goes away. If anything, it intensifies with success. There’s a section in this book where they explore the fear that the directors face and the mental models they use to make sense of everything. This is important for creative collaboration because an entire group can get stuck and grow risk-averse in their creativity.
The goal of creative collaboration isn’t creativity. With Pixar, the goal is always storytelling and, I would argue, highly emotional myth-making. Creativity isn’t what drives the storytelling. Rather, storytelling drives the creativity. This, by the way, is why I rarely talk about creativity with students. I don’t assess it. I don’t place it on a rubric. I don’t tell students, “Go out and be creative.” Instead, I encourage groups to focus on the purpose and the audience and to feel the freedom to take creative risks.
People are More Important Than Ideas
There was a great quote here, “Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas . . . too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.” This has a few big implications for creative collaboration. First, it means trust and relationships are more important than the products we make. Second, it means we need to be okay to abandon ideas without taking things personally. Finally, it means our success in generating ideas does not define who we are as people. Ultimately, the success of a group isn’t the product they create so much as the way that they relate to one another.