How Pixar solved the most complicated equation of creative industries

Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. (…)

While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against–they all have a way of reasserting themselves. And when they do, you must address them squarely.

? > Collaboration > Excellence

Fast Company has published some excerpts from Creativity Inc. the book by Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, co-written with LA Times journalist Amy Wallace. I haven’t read the full book as yet, but I believe the quote above provides a perspective on candor as key to collaboration that is both profound and enlightening.

This sample describes the Braintrust meeting , a collaborative review of movie projects and how Ed as a leader makes sure that these collaborative sessions remain fruitful and efficient. This may remind agilists of the Perfection Game which is probably why Ed uses it to pursue excellence.

? > Trust > Collaboration > Excellence

Most of the #socbiz community agree that collaboration is key to tackle 21st century economy complexity – and that enterprise 2.0 is a great way to scale collaboration throughout the organization.

At some point we have all converged to the conclusion that trust was key to foster collaboration culture (“Trust is the currency of anything social” as Susan Scrupski puts it – baring in mind that collaboration is highly social).

? > Trustworthiness > Trust > Collaboration > Excellence

Having said that deoes not help much leaders as it does not answer that question : how as a leader can they foster trust in order to foster collaboration ? Onara O’Neil (in her great TED Talk) reminds us that rather than trying to force people to trust us (changing others) we should think about what we could do to become more trustworthy (changing ourself).

But again, from a leader perspective, it is rather challenging to make it actionable and to nudge people into becoming trustworthy.

? > Vulnerability > Trustworthiness > Trust > Collaboration > Excellence

Jon Hagel and then later Euan Semple and Megan Murray suggested that a good way to solve the trust paradox and to become trustworthy was to accept to share one own vulnerability. I fully buy into that and I fully appreciate when people has the courage to share their own vulnerability.

Yet, the issue with this approach is that it is a rather risky one. There are some corporate animals you just don’t want to look vulnerable to as they will use it for their benefits and against you (I might some day discover some horror stories I was involved in about this).

Besides, and most importantly for our concern, that still does not look actionable from a leader point of view event though we have move one step further.

?  > Candor > Vulnerability > Trustworthiness > Trust > Collaboration > Excellence

Back to Ed Catmull quote above. What I find priceless with this perspective is how actionable it is.

If there is no easy way for a leader to force people to collaborate more or to trust their colleagues more, or to become more trustworthy or more vulnerable, there is a way for leaders to act so that candor remain present during these sessions : candor to foster collaboration, to push the organization towards excellence and to root out mediocrity.

Leader clear action  > Candor > Vulnerability > Trustworthiness > Trust > Collaboration > Excellence

I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor.

Here it is : eliminating the blocks to candor, on a regular basis (Braintrust meetings happen every month or so). This is how, as a leader, you can foster collaboration and push your organization towards excellence.

This somehow echoes one of the main principle of the free organization as per Isaac Getz definition : the leader must ensure the culture is respected by rooting out all blocks to it, personally. Looking at Pixar products, it looks like it has worked out rather well for them.

A profound and priceless advice for 21st century leaders.

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