What We're Into: Creativity, Inc. and Pixar's Braintrust

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch via Flickr

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch via Flickr

Connect the Grey's work with entrepreneurs and teams requires us to think about what makes for a successfully creative organization. One of our favorite books on the subject is Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull's book of wisdom from his long tenure as president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. The book outlines the behavior and processes that have helped Pixar excel as a home for creative storytelling, with plenty of anecdotes of success and failure from the past 20 years.

Catmull's book opens by recalling how a long, narrow conference table kept the company's brainstorms from being effective: It distanced most people from the center of the conversation, and created a hierarchy that discouraged input from anyone who wasn't a senior leader. His point: Even in a company full of amazingly creative and talented individuals, it's essential to consciously maintain an environment where all voices are valued, candor is encouraged, and everyone is working toward a shared goal.

One of the most important pieces of Pixar's culture is the Braintrust, a regular meeting of key creative and storytelling leaders in which everyone reviews each other's work. This format, in which everyone offers their frank opinions with the mission of improving each other's work, is similar to the group critique at the center of our creativEcosphere program. Pixar's Braintrust offers many of the same benefits as creativeEcosphere's "hot seat"-style critique:

It offers perspective. We often talk about how entrepreneurs get stuck working "in the business," not "on the business." They're so close to the work that they have trouble seeing what's working or not. Catmull says the same is true for directors of Pixar movies: "All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, get lost somewhere along the way." Because the people in the Braintrust aren't tangled in the day-to-day details of a project, they can offer the necessary perspective to see where something's lacking or disjointed in a film. The Braintrust also separates the work from the person who created it, making it less likely that they'll get defensive when facing criticism.

It asks questions and offers suggestions, but allows the director to make his or her own decisions. Pixar makes clear that notes from the Braintrust are not requirements, Catmull writes. He gives an example from The Incredibles where the director, Brad Bird, decided not to take a specific note from the Braintrust; however, the note illuminated a problem that he was able to fix in a different way. When a film isn't quite working, Catmull explains, it's not always easy to tell exactly where the breakdown is. The Braintrust helps uncover the roots of a problem, but then lets the director choose what to do about it.

It's among peers who are all working on their own projects. Because Pixar's computer-animated films take years to complete, there are always multiple projects going on at once, each with its own director and team — so each member of the Braintrust is stepping away from their own ongoing project to think critically about each other's work. They're practiced storytellers speaking from direct experience. Shifting their mindset to someone else's film for the Braintrust meeting also helps them step back from their own projects and gain new perspective and ideas.

It's built on empathy and trust. Because everyone in the Braintrust has experience with their own projects, they understand and can identify with each other's struggles. Catmull writes, "Any successful feedback system is based on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we've experienced it ourselves." Everyone in the Braintrust is coming from a place of genuine support and a desire to make the best movies possible, so they can build the trust required to be candid. Though participants in our creativEcosphere program may be working on wildly different ventures — unlike Pixar, where everyone shares the experience of telling stories through animation — they can build that same trust and common ground.

Learn more about why we make space for effective feedback in our post here!