“To infinity and beyond!” “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
I bet I’m not the only one who remembers which movies these quotes came from. We all love those movies, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc. These kids movies move us in ways that no other animated movie does. Pixar pushes the bounds of animated movies not only through technology but also by adding emotional depth to their films. Pixar continues to produce movies that land the box office records time and time again. In his book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shares his story in how Pixar created a team that creates mind-blowing products. The theme? It’s the team not the product that makes the product great. “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”
Reading Ed’s book I learned 4 ways to create a team and culture that consistently produce excellent work:
Consider who you hire.
Who you hire will make your break your team. You’re only as strong as the weakest team member. Ed expands on this idea, revealing that Pixar makes it a priority to hire for the quality of the person, not the position. When you have individuals who are self-driven, motivated, passionate, and aiming for excellence in whatever they do, these qualities will naturally bleed into anything they produce. Team leaders don’t have to waste time micromanaging or pushing the team in the direction it needs to go. These individuals genuinely care and want to contribute to the company vision, and in turn they will shift their focus towards that vision. The quality of work stems from the quality of individuals on the team.
Include the whole team.
Ed shares the story of Japan’s success in the automobile industry when they altered the assembly line process. In Japan, anyone could pull the cord to stop the line when they found an issue with the product. This shifts responsibility to everyone, not just the ‘higher up’ employees which, in turn, produces more quality products and gives ownership of the product to people who are part of the process. Since everyone has a buy-in, everyone wants the product to succeed. They feel “the pride that comes when they help fix what is broken”. Pixar has instilled several processes that allow the group to be able to provide feedback on the product being developed. When you include your whole team in the process, more conviction is behind what is being created. Every voice has weight, and giving your team the power to stop the “assembly line”, so to speak, at any moment will create a stronger team culture and product.
Create a culture of candor.
One of Pixar’s unique ingredients to their culture is uninhibited candor. They have created an atmosphere where honesty is crucial in their creation process. They understand that every idea starts out rough and needs the team to sharpen it to greatness. To them, “candor overrides hierarchy”. A technician can give feedback to the director, and an artist can receive feedback from the producer. When striving for honesty as a pillar in company culture, not only does honest feedback need to be giveable, but it also needs to be receptive. Pixar’s employees understand that the feedback given is from an empathic standpoint with the goal of adding to the idea, not competing with it. The focus and tone become about making the product better, not tearing each other down. Ed states, “A mark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” Providing and receiving honest feedback opens the door to a broader perspective and allows blind spots to be detected. “Without candor there can be no trust; without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
Manage fear of failure.
Pixar’s culture begins to stand out when they handle failure. No matter what kind of business you’re in, the creative process opens one up to the opportunity of making mistakes. There seems to be a cultural connotation that failure is bad. This is because when someone makes a mistake, it is easy to play the blame game. In reality, we need to see failure as “a manifestation of learning and exploration”, and we need to collaboratively glean from a mistake and shift towards building off of that mistake.
If your company isn’t making mistakes, then is it really being creative and innovative? “To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.” A redefinition of failure is needed when building a healthy, honest, team that is going to push the bounds of the market. “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk — but if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”
Ed believes that even though failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. To create a culture that encourages exploration and experimentation, a manager needs to build trust by being patient, authentic, and consistent, which will be the soil the innovation will thrive from.
Creating a sustainable company culture that doesn’t just pay lip service to important concepts like communication, trust, honesty, and quality takes humility from leaders to realize that the entire team is needed.
Our leaders need to create an environment where everyone can participate in the product’s success; where honest feedback can be given and received between colleagues; where failure is not condemned and exploration is encouraged. It is the job of the leader to protect the environment and to intentionally look for problems that could arise and eat away at these qualities from within the company culture. Like Pixar, these pillars can be the foundation of any solid company.
The goal should be to ”support our people, because we know that the best ideas emerge when we’ve made it safe to work through problems.”