#132: Lessons From Pixar

Ed Catmull co-founded Pixar, the business that changed how we experience movies. His book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, is one of the best that I have read about leading and building a business.

He is masterful in explaining both the strategic principles and the many ways reality makes it complicated. Reading it is like having a glass of wine with an experienced mentor. It is a powerful blend of philosophy and practice, principle and pragmatism.

Towards the end of the book, he says that one of his core principles is that “the future is unmade, and we must create it”.

His active orientation threads through everything; for example, he refers to the search for balance, writing “Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness – the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments.”

Of course, the yogis among you know that underneath the apparent calm of a balancing pose, muscles are working dynamically and in concert to hold the appearance of stillness. Even there, balance requires active intention.

Catmull reflects that “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became – wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”

This is often missed in the strategy, leadership, and management literature. Leadership, running an organisation, heck – running a life, is a day-in-day-out, full-time job. It requires intentionality, action, learning, reflection.

Catmull co-wrote Creativity Inc with journalist Amy Wallace. The result is so excellent, that I didn’t hesitate to buy her recent collaboration with Jeff Immelt, the former CEO of General Electric, Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company.


Organisations are complex. Life is complex. Problems occur, more often than we’d like.

Catmull comments that many people get excited about the visible expressions of Pixar’s culture – the parties, the creatively decorated workstations and other novelties but what truly makes Pixar special is that “we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any elaborate party or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives me a definite sense of mission.”

The ability to do this is dependent on this principle, “Find, develop, and support good people, and they, in turn, will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

But good people still make mistakes. Don’t we all? And so, the leader’s job remains, be present, be engaged, guide.

He observes that “Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions – and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure… groups within Pixar have gone through difficult times together, solved problems together, and that is how they’ve built up trust in each other. Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.”

He introduces us to 8 principles that he has used to guide Pixar. They’re pretty self-explanatory:

  1. Solving Problems Together
  2. Research Trips
  3. The Power of Limits
  4. Integrating Technology and Art
  5. Short Experiments
  6. Learning to See (in other words, the solution to the problem may lie somewhere else in the system. Scriptwriter George Kemp calls this listening for the ‘note behind the note’).
  7. Post-mortems (Catmull gives five reasons for post-mortems: Consolidate What’s Been Learned; Teach Others Who Weren’t There; Don’t Let Resentments Fester; Use the Schedule to Force Reflection and Pay It Forward).
  8. Continuing to Learn.

What might these look like in your organization, in your life?


Catmull’s insights about Steve Jobs were an unexpected bonus.

Jobs bought the Pixar division out of LucasFilms, funded the early years of exploration and building, and was instrumental in setting it on its way. Like the rest of the book, Catmull’s authenticity makes his reflections powerful.

In the early days of their collaboration, he notes that Jobs’ “method for taking the measure of a room was saying something definitive and outrageous – ‘These charts are bullshit!’ or ‘This deal is crap!’ – and watching people react… Watching him reminded me of a principle of engineering: Sending out a sharp impulse – like a dolphin uses echolocation to determine the location of a school of fish – can teach you crucial things about your environment. Steve used aggressive interplay as a kind of biological sonar. It was how he sized up the world.”

It’s an interesting take on Jobs’ notorious abrasiveness – a biological sonar. It is undoubtedly true that a ‘sharp impulse’ can often give you valuable feedback. We often hold back from the more direct question or observation, missing out on valuable information.

Of course, abrasiveness can shut down valuable contributions.

Catmull says that as Jobs’ leadership journey unfolded, he became “more articulate and observant of people’s feelings as time went on. He learned to read the room, demonstrating skills that, years earlier, I didn’t think he had. Some people have said that he got mellower with age, but I don’t think that’s an adequate description of what happened; it sounds too passive, as if he just was letting more go. Steve’s transformation was an active one. He continued to engage; he just changed the way he went about it.”

Again, Catmull takes us to intention-led-action.

He reminded me of Gandhi’s formulation “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”


Catmull notes that creativity is a process. He says that “I’ve known many people I consider to be creative geniuses… I can’t remember a single one who could articulate exactly what this vision was that they were striving for when they started” and “In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself.”

This is true for life. Popular culture hammers us with the mythologies of perfectly-pursued, instantly-achieved visions. The reality is generally more complex, more iterative, has more mistakes and requires more patience.

For this reason, he calls the early versions of Pixar’s films ‘ugly babies’, “Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘ugly babies.’ They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing – in the form of time and patience – in order to grow.”

In order to refine and improve the films, Pixar values candor. Why? For two reasons.

One, creativity has to start somewhere and so requires a lot of shaping – they’re initially ‘ugly babies’.

Two, “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things – in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees” – candor can give perspective.

Catmull cautions “Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The need to stroke one’s own ego, to get the credit we feel we deserve – we strive to check those impulses at the door… every note we give is in the service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.”

That is a soulful challenge – to be open to and seek candid feedback, and to be candid in a way that supports and guides one another.

To make a success of our lives, we do need to disappear into them, to fuse with our objectives, and we can lose perspective. Having trusted connections who are brave and caring enough to give us candid feedback can keep our soul, self and strategy aligned.

All the best


PS: You can read how Pixar tackled escalating costs and complexity here.
PPS: If you’re wanting to build a sustainable culture, for yourself or your business, you can learn more about my coaching practice here. You can subscribe to this letter here.

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