Things I learned from Ed Catmull

 

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A few months ago I heard Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, give a talk about leading creative organisations.

Apart from his obvious experience and track record of success, what was clear was that he had thought very deeply about some crucial questions about leadership.

These are some notes about what he said and thoughts that he provoked. To be clear – they are not direct quotes – they are my recollections and thoughts based on my notes of his talk (what I learned rather than what I heard).

Be prepared for near death experiences on projects. All Pixar movies “suck” at first. They are radically altered again and again until they work. Every Pixar film except one – Toy Story 3 – has  gone through a phase of intense crisis during its development.

Most people want to avoid the “near death” part of the creative experience, but it is very often essential in order to get to something really good. (This reminded me once again of the valley of creative despair that is the liminal state.)

A leader’s job is to maintain a balance of power. In a studio – just like an agency – there are business functions like finance, production, creative, marketing, technology etc. Organisations fail when one of these functions “wins” and dominates the others with its agenda.

For instance, in studios where production wins, films are produced on time and on budget, but creatives become demoralised and produce lower quality work and talent leaves. A CEO or President needs to make sure that no part of the organisation becomes dominant and skews resources with its particular agenda.

Business books are curiously free of content. Very often business books state obvious truths and avoid more difficult questions.

Smart people make stupid decisions. This is a puzzle that more business books could do with taking on – rather than succumbing to narrative bias, or focusing on successes. There should be more books about failure, more conversations about why we do stupid things.

Leaders can’t see the things that are going wrong. When an organisation is bound for failure What are the forces that I can’t see, is the question a leader needs to constantly ask themselves. People will be behaving badly at times – but they will never do it in front of you.

You need to make the information flow separate from the organisational structure. This reminded me of Churchill, who set up the Office for National Statistics so he could hear what was really going on – rather than allowing each department to gather data and report in their own way, influenced by their various agendas.

You need people to be candid, not just honest. Politeness, respect, embarrassment, fear, blinkered-visions/solipsism, and other things can stop people from being candid. His job as CEO is to spot those things and stop them. Often leaders will prevent candour with their presence in a room, unless they build trust and make it clear what behaviours are acceptable.

Protect new ideas. New ideas are vulnerable, delicate things. If they are good ideas they need to be protected, allowed to develop in a safe space. Success at Pixar and other creative companies is about creating safe spaces for creatives and ideas to flourish.

We are always operating in a fuzzy space. We have to be comfortable doing that. Again, invoking the liminal state for me, Dr Catmull talked about the need for creative leaders and creatives to work in and with uncertainty. We cannot deliver genius on schedule, we need to be comfortable with that. We do not know what the final iteration of the story will look like, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know what the technology or media landscape will look like more than about six months from now, but we have to make plans for the next six years – and know they may look as different in the final version as Up looked from the first idea for that story (a castle floating in the clouds full of people at war with the people on the ground, apparently)…