Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ed Catmull and the Harvard Business Review

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has written an article for the Harvard Business Review that can be read here. There is also a podcast you can find here.

Both focus on organizational structure and the steps that Pixar has taken to prevent the mistakes that are all too common in business. Here are some excerpts from the article:
"To act in this fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new. That’s why you see so many movies that are so much alike. It also explains why a lot of films aren’t very good. If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people!"

"Creative power in a film has to reside with the film’s creative leadership. As obvious as this might seem, it’s not true of many companies in the movie industry and, I suspect, a lot of others. We believe the creative vision propelling each movie comes from one or two people and not from either corporate executives or a development department. Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone."

"Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. This means recognizing that the decision-making hierarchy and communication structure in organizations are two different things. Members of any department should be able to approach anyone in another department to solve problems without having to go through “proper” channels. It also means that managers need to learn that they don’t always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it’s OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised. The impulse to tightly control the process is understandable given the complex nature of moviemaking, but problems are almost by definition unforeseen. The most efficient way to deal with numerous problems is to trust people to work out the difficulties directly with each other without having to check for permission. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas."
I've never worked at Pixar or even visited the place. Catmull makes it sound somewhat utopian, but I've worked in enough companies to know that people within a company are always competing for plum assignments or for having their vision prevail. That's human nature and I doubt that Pixar has found a way to re-engineer it. However, Pixar has had a remarkable run at the box office and remains a leader in the field, so I can only assume that the company philosophy has helped them in their continued success. It certainly sounds different from most of the places I've worked, none of which have been as successful.

(link via Cinematech.)


Floyd Norman said...

Utopian? Not quite, but it's certainly the best workplace I've ever encountered in my long career.

As a constant Apple (the company) watcher, I would have to say Pixar Animation Studios benefited from the philosophy of former owner, Steve Jobs. It might surprise some to learn Steve Jobs shares a lot of the same qualities of Walt Disney. Having worked for both, I'm uniquely qualified to make this observation.

Although I loved Ed Catmull's business ethic, I wonder how long this can be retained now that his company is tethered to a huge market driven corporation?

Anonymous said...

Portland is littered with former employees who didn't fit in with their preferred work culture.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

'Big risks' are relative. What a company might find to be outrageous, after spending so much time on the safe side, might not actually be all that outrageous.

But, it does sound pretty good on paper! I'm going to give Disney and Pixar the benefit of the doubt. Time will tell if his words will be fulfilled... BOLT already looks like less of a movie than it could have been.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Catmull's article seems me interesting!

Jason Scott said...

I've read some articles about people leaving Pixar when it's obvious that they can't become directors for the (very small) pool of films coming out. So there's some non-utopia. On the other hand, this leads to some very talented people filtering over to other companies, where they end up improving those places markedly. I'm thinking of the Penguin movie Surf's Up, which was done by a Pixar alum and which was much better than it deserved to be.

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