Pixar, Artists, Founders and Corporate Innovation

I’m still surprised when I find unexpected connections with innovation in different industries.

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In a recent workshop with a large company focused on the Innovation@50x process, I mentioned that founders and intraprenuers operate more like artists than accountants – on day one they see something no one else does. One of the innovators in the room said, “It sounds like you’re describing exactly what Ed Catmull the CEO of Pixar wrote in Creativity, Inc.”creativity inc

Say what?  I kicked myself knowing that I should have thought of Pixar.

While I’m sure Ed Catmull doesn’t remember, when Pixar was a startup selling the Image Computer, their VP of Sales and Marketing brought me in to put together their marketing strategy. John Lassiter was just beginning to make commercials, Alvy Ray Smith was building Iceman and Loren Carpenter and Rob Cook were writing Renderman.

I should have realized there was a ton I could learn about corporate creativity by looking at Pixar.

So I bought the book.

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I always thought that when I used the “founders as artists” analogy, the “artists” I was describing were painters, writers, sculptors and composers. I wondered what lessons Pixar, an animation studio, could have for founders. What were the parallels? Startup founders operate in chaos and uncertainty. Founders get out of the building to talk to customers. We create minimal viable products to test hypotheses/our vision, and we build a culture that supports innovation. It never occurred to me that the directors of 3D animated movies at Pixar could be the same “founders as artists.”

It turns out that they are. And in fact, the creative process at Pixar has a ton of lessons for both startup founders and corporate innovators.

Directors = Startup Founder
Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio. That means the entire company is driven by directors – the artists – not by corporate executives in management with MBA’s or financial models or a development department.

A director at Pixar is the equivalent of a startup founder. At Pixar a director’s vision for a film is much like a founder’s vision for a startup. The director starts with a vision of a great story he wants to turn into an animated movie. On day one, all a director has is his vision – she doesn’t yet know the exact path to get to the final movie. (Like a startup founder.) Pixar directors use their ability to tell a compelling story to convince management that their initial idea is powerful enough to be a great movie. (Like a startup.) They get approval, build and rally a team, get their team out of the building and do research and iterate and at times pivot the story/film as they refine the vision of the movie. (Like a startup.) Once their idea is approved, the company organizes its technical and production resources (hundreds of people on each movie) behind those directors to turn their vision into a great movie that lots of people will go see. (Like a startup.)

It Starts With a Vision
While the parallels between a director and a startup founder are striking, what’s even more surprising is the match between the creative process Pixar uses to make its movies and our implementation of Lean for startups in the Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps incubators.

When Pixar begins a new movie the movie doesn’t exist yet. It’s only an idea in the head of the director (or in the case of a startup, the founder.) How the director crafts reality out of this vision is exactly like how a founder creates a startup – it’s a combination of vision, reality distortion field, tenacity and persuasion.

pixarDirectors, like founders, develop mental models for how they search for an unseen destination – they “get in the zone.” Some directors view it as finding a way out of a maze, or looking for a light at the end of a tunnel or uncovering a buried mountain.

Greenlight = VC Funding
At Pixar, if you’re a director with a passion for a project you pitch a very simple minimum viable product – in this case storyboards which are just rough illustrations that help to tell the story page by page. If you can convince John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, the film will be greenlit – it gets funding. The process is akin to pitching a VC firm.

Braintrust = Continual Feedback
One of the systems that Pixar has put in place to keep the development of a movie on track is regular doses of open and honest feedback from other experienced directors in regularly scheduled meetings called the “Braintrust.” A director shares his latest progress in the the form of storyboards, demo reels, etc. (what we in startup world would call the minimum viable product) and the critiques from other directors take the the form of comments like, “Have you considered x or thought about y?” Directors are free to come up with their own solutions. But if feedback from the Braintrust is given and nothing changes… that’s a problem. And if the director loses the confidence of his crew, Pixar management steps in.

In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps our equivalent to the Braintrust are weekly meetings where teams present what they learned from talking to customers and show their latest minimum viable products, and instructors provide continuous feedback.

I found other parallels between Pixar’s method for managing innovation and what we built in the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps incubators. (Oren Jacob, Pixar’s ex CTO has been teaching with us at Berkeley and Stanford and has been trying to point out this connection for years!)

Innovation Management – Animation and Startups
Dailies are the way animators (and movie makers) show and measure progress. Everyone can comment but the director decides what changes, if any, to make. Dailies are Pixar equivalents of showing your incremental MVP’s- minimum viable products. In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps, we make our teams show us MVP’s weekly to measure progress.

Research trips – Pixar wanted to avoid the trap of cutting up and reassembling what was done in previous movies so they instituted research trips – “getting out of the building” to get authenticity and keep clichés at bay. Pixar animators flew to Hawaii and went scuba diving for Finding Nemo, to Scotland while they were making Brave and drove Route 66 when making Cars. Pixar movies feel authentic because they’re modeled after the real world.

Lean Startups are built around the same notion as Pixar research trips. With startups, there are no facts inside your building so founders have to get the heck outside. Entrepreneurs work hard at becoming the customer, so they can understand customers needs and wants and experience the customer’s the day-in-the-life.

Pivots – Directors can pivot as long as their team can believe the reasons for changing course. When you lose your team’s trust, the team will bail. Same is true for startup founders. And if pivots don’t work or the Pixar Braintrust feels that after lots of feedback, the movie still is heading in the wrong direction, they replace the director – identical when a founder loses the the board’s confidence and gets replaced.

The power of limits – Although Pixar movies are incredibly detailed, one of their strengths is knowing when to stop.  In a startup knowing that every feature isn’t necessary and knowing what not to ship, is the art of a founder.

Postmortems – After a film is completed, Pixar holds a postmortem, a meeting to summarize what worked, what didn’t and what they could do better next time.  In the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps classes, the teaching team does post mortems weekly and then a final wrap-up after class. More importantly, our teams’ final presentation are not a Demo Day, but a Lesson Learned presentation summarizing what they hypothesized, what they did and what they learned. 

Artists and Founders

Pixar            Startups
Visionary Director Founder
Discovery Research Trips Customer Development
Outside Feedback Braintrust feedback Weekly team feedback in
Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps
Progress Dailies Minimum Viable Products
Continuous Learning Post mortems Lessons Learned Day &
Instructor Post Mortems

Continuous corporate innovation @ Pixar
While the parallels between individual Pixar movies and startups is striking, Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull has built is a company that has continued to innovate, making hit after hit.  While part of Pixar’s success has been built on a series of world class directors (John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich), what makes Pixar unique is that in a “hits-based business” they’ve figured out how to turn directors’ visions into blockbuster movies repeatedly. Pixar has built a process of continuous corporate innovation.

Innovation Killers – Pixar Lessons for Corporate Innovation
Ed Catmull points than one of the impediments to innovation in a large company is the “fear of failure”. In a fear-based culture people avoid risk. They repeat things that are safe and have worked in the past. His solution at Pixar was to get directors to talk about mistakes and their part in them.  Surfacing failure publically by the most respected innovators makes it safe for others to do the same. (Getting middle management to tolerate and not feel threatened by problems and surprises is one of the biggest jobs of Pixar’s CEO and senior leadership.)

The second innovation insight at Pixar is the power of iterative trial and error – the notion of being wrong fast. (One of the key tenets of the Lean Startup.) Catmull observed that even the smartest person can’t consider all possible outcomes. Managers who over-plan just take longer to be wrong. Managers see change as a threat to their existing business model – and it is. Self-interest motivates opposition to change but lack of self awareness fuels it even more.

Finally, Catmull’s observation that “originality is fragile” speaks to the startup process as well as to making movies. At Pixar in it’s first moments, originality is often far from pretty. Early mockups of Pixar films are called “ugly babies.”  However, while it may be ugly, it’s the opposite of the established and entrenched. (We remind large companies that version 1.0 of disruption – these ugly babies – coming their way always looks like a toy.)

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Lessons Learned

  • Founders are closer to artists than any other profession
  • Founders and Pixar directors have uncanny parallels
  • Pixar, more than Apple, Google, Amazon or any other large company, holds the record for continuous innovation
  • Pixar and the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps share common ways to support repeatable innovation and market success

 

8 Responses

  1. Excellent perspective. Thank you Steve!

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  2. Very interesting Steve. I’ve read that book sometime ago and one thing to add would be that I see in some Corporations the insistence of saying they do not need a dedicated team and particular processes to innovate, especially in products. Like Pixar and other innovation producers, a Designated Team, Focus and Innovation Processes are key to produce innovation continuously with value added. Otherwise, what I see is just frustration.

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  3. This summer I am leading a workshop with Light Chaser Studios, China’s version of Pixar. I bet you’d be quite interested to know their process. I’d love to invite you to be part of the workshop. Let me know if we can connect. IT’s going to be in Beijing this summer. Very close to the airport, in an artist’s village, where they have been working on releasing their first ever animation feature length film, Little Door Gods.

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  4. fantastic Steve – this is exceptional parallel thinking across the creative disciplines of creating business and creating film. #kudos – Next time you are in Austin, TX I want to share with you some ideas I’ve had around similar concepts to add to your way of thinking around the analogy of “Founders as Artists”.

    Gratitude,

    [image: TarzanSharif.com] Tarzan Sharif

    – View my Linkedin – Schedule a meeting

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  5. I am the Chief Scientist at Art.com and a long-time inventor. In a past life I invented (and patented for Motorola) the technique used inside modern cellphones to eliminate noise, used in billions of calls. I know something about innovation and something about art. I have recently created a brand new art experience (klioart.com) to bring new kinds of digital art genres to life in the home.

    Anyway, I think there is a very key difference between artists and founders, per the “Lean” vision of that world.

    Artists do not “get out of the building” in the sense that they self-edit their aesthetic intent to suit some kind of criteria for market adoption. That would lead to the dull conclusion that all paintings should be landscapes.

    I believe that a strong part of our innovation heritage is being overlooked by the dumbing down of the “lean” approach which is the opposite to the role of cultural interpreters who dig deep into some kind of creative well to find new meanings in life. They are often willing to be puzzled by simple things, like why should art be representational? Or, why should a book shelf need to be functional (instead of sculptural, say).

    I think a far greater parallel between artists and innovators is accessible via Roberto Verganti’s book: “Design-Driven Innovation,” in which he talks about the role of interpreters. In its ultimate form, he tells the story of an architect who delivers exactly one creative vision for his work without ever “getting out of the building” so to speak.

    Creating a strong vision of what is needed versus asking lots of people for their pithy feedback of half-baked ideas must surely speak of a very different creative process.

    I think that a far better parallel between the film industry and start-ups is the business of “showrunning.” A showrunner not only has to carry a creative burden of ensuring a compelling story arc, but she has to bring it in on time and within budget every episode. That is a remarkable achievement indeed.

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  6. Interesting and helpful. Thank you!!

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  7. Thank you.

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  8. Fantastic insights. “Lean Startups are built around the same notion as Pixar research trips. With startups, there are no facts inside your building so founders have to get the heck outside.” – Couldnt agree more with this sentiment.

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