Ed Catmul, cofounder of Pixar and president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios offers his perspective on the people versus ideas question in a powerful and practical leadership article entitled: How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity, in the September, 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
Mr. Catmul is quick to offer his selection of “people” over ideas, a choice that almost might seem counter intuitive for the leader of an organization that clearly wins or loses on big ideas. While acknowledging that great creativity is essential starting with the “High Concept” (the high-level idea for a new production) and continuing through thousands of steps to completing the project, he submits that it is the working environment that allows this creativity to emerge and evolve rapidly and effectively. (As an aside, his description of moving from the “high concept” to the finished product as “an archaeological dig where you don’t know what you’re looking for or whether you will even find anything,” wonderfully describes the reality of the creative process in so many functions and industries. As leaders, we are well served to remember that creativity doesn’t happen on command and rarely on schedule.”
Your Priority as a Leader: Create the Right Working Environment
Catmul’s thesis: getting talented people to work together requires a working environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity, is valid for leaders at all levels and all situations. The concept of creating the effective working environment is so important to me that it earned a full chapter in my portion of my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. It is also the essence of my description of “The Leader’s Charter” which starts out with the words…”The true role of a leader is to create an environment that… .”
Mr. Catmull offers that while “most executives at least pay lip service to the notion that they need to get good people and should set their standards high, how many understand the importance of creating an environment that supports great people and encourages them to support one another so the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.”
This great article goes on to tie in Pixar’s three key operating principles as powerful components of their effective working environment:
- Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone (my phrase: an effective feedback culture)
- It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas (feedback culture again)
- Stay close to innovations in the academic community (my interpretation: foster a learning organization).
Pixar’s operating principles emphasizing open communications, mutual respect and the development of trust are bolstered by a refreshing attitude towards risk:
"Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur."
And on pursuing a compelling vision:
"We as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which is of course much easier said than done."
The Bottom-Line for Now:
After many years of leading and now several years of working with aspiring and experienced leaders in all manner of industries and cultures, I remain convinced that most individuals lack proper context for their role as leaders. The great leaders at all levels understand that they have a unique responsibility and unique power to adapt and form their working environment to the unique circumstances at a point in time. Less effective leaders allow the environment to form around the wrong issues including ego (theirs) and petty politics. The lessons of Pixar are hard-won and the outcomes visible to all. You would be well served to listen, learn and apply some of Mr. Catmul’s wisdom to your environment.