Saturday, February 7, 2009

Creating - the Ed Catmull way

Ed Catmull is the man. As one of the founders of Pixar and a past Lucasfilm alum, he's pioneered the art of fostering creative innovation & culture.

He wrote an awesome article in the Harvard Business Review a few months ago, titled 'How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity' that I highly recommend if you can snag a copy. It's available here for $6.50.

If you don't want to stretch to the $6.50 then this article also on HBR covers some of the key points. One that particularly resonates for me is this -

Delegating power. Ed and his fellow executives give directors tremendous authority. At other studios, corporate executives micromanage by keeping tight control over production budgets and inserting themselves into creative decisions. Not at Pixar. Senior management sets budgetary and timeline boundaries for a production and then leave the director and his team alone.

Executives resist exercising creative authority even when it's thrust upon them. Take reviews of works in progress by "brain trusts" of directors at Pixar and Disney Animation. The rule is that all opinions are only advice that the director of the movie in question can use as he or she sees fit. Catmull, chief creative officer John Lasseter, and executive vice president of production Jim Morris often attend these sessions but insist that their views be treated the same way and refuse to let directors turn them into decision-makers.

Even when a director runs into deep trouble, Ed and the other executives refrain from personally taking control of the creative process. Instead, they might add someone to the team whom they think might help the director out of his bind. If nothing works, they'll change directors rather than fashion solutions themselves.

I absolutely passionately believe that this type of set up is critical. I was fortunate enough to attend a talk with Ed a few weeks ago and he also spoke to his personal leadership style in terms of his style of 'anti micro-management'.

He related a story of working with a new creative team. They presented a detailed plan with schedule and cost breakdown for their next project. He asked how many staff months they needed and they said 855. He told them (me paraphrasing from memory) "I'm going to give you one number, 985. That's how many staff months I'm giving you. I'm holding you to that and I don't need to see any other numbers from you, go make the feature.".

I love to see this level of trust put into the hands of the people responsible for their creative products. It's giving clear constraints and then stepping back and letting smart people figure out how to create something amazing within those constraints. This is inspirational leadership at work.

Here's an interview with Ed, at around the 2.45 mark he talks about the importance of trust in having the artists do the right thing.

In the talk I attended, he said something else very critical. Projects go south when people don't plan for change. You ALWAYS experience change in a projects life cycle. You should accept it, embrace it, and plan for it. This is why he gave that team the additional staff months, so they could plan for change and continue to iterate towards quality.

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