Written by Hunter Satterfield
As a consumer there are few companies in the world I have a blind allegiance to. Chick-Fil-A, Whataburger and Discount Tire are all companies I never comparison shop for and trust every time that the product I purchase will have the same high level of quality. I have visited these establishments hundreds of times over the years, and tested a countless number of their products and services. What if I told you there was another company that was on my list that has only made 20 products in its history and every one of them was widely accepted as an overwhelming success?
An extra-ordinary impression
I remember in high school sitting down at the local Cinemark theater to watch a first-time movie from an unknown start up studio in Silicon Valley. There was little in the media about this newly animated movie, with a plot centered around children’s toys and produced by a no named studio. Fast forward 23 years and today Toy Story is regarded as the movie that changed the game in the animation world, and established Pixar Animation as a company that can do no wrong.
Ed Catmull’s biography, “Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” is the story behind Pixar Animation and how it turned a creative idea into greatness. Catmull is the President and co-founder of Pixar and tells the story about Pixar’s journey as a business over the years including multiple offers to sell, points of uncertainty, contention within management (Steve Jobs was the other co-founder) and its ultimate merger with Disney.
Lessons from those that traveled before us
Biographies were a genre I often ignored as a young reader. Now as a leader in my organization, I recognize the importance of reading biographies of extra-ordinary men and women from history; hearing what made them great, learning from the flaws and experiences that defined them. This biography of Pixar paints a picture of what makes them great and differentiates them in an industry that is highly competitive and constantly changing.
Fail early and fail fast
Catmull talks about building an organization that fosters creativity and problem solving, while still protecting the inventiveness that makes Pixar top in the industry. The road was not always easy, and Pixar faced many challenges and roadblocks that could have derailed it as a company. Catmull discusses these trials as he weaves stories of the hit movies that we have come to love over the years. He asserts that Pixar survived these challenges by integrating a culture of “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” The image he paints is approaching two hills and not knowing which direction to walk up to get to your destination – the faster you climb the first hill and realize you made a mistake, the faster you get to your destination.
Catmull speaks to the power of great people in ultimately determining the destiny of any great organization. He does so in telling a story of the constantly changing plot lines of Toy Story 2 and the internal strife over which direction to take the movie. He relates, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”
The genius of what Catmull does is to weave stories of the movies we know and love with stories of the production process, and the lessons the Pixar leadership team learned about how to build a better team and organization as a result. Who knew that Monsters Inc. had a business story behind it about iterative trial and error – the idea of making mistakes along the way with the purpose of learning from them and getting better? Or that the production process of Up could teach a lesson about how to schedule the work done by a team to maximize the efficiency of that team?
A culture of greatness
For years I have wondered what made Pixar so great – a company that every year continues to create hit after hit while other movie studios would consistently bat less than average. I assumed it was due to one great leader or one great process, but turns out it is a result of one great culture. A culture built on empowering creative people and in constant failure and ongoing tweaking. As Dory would say, “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keeping swimming.”
Principles in life and work
Every business and organization is built on vast quantities of decisions, innovations and processes. Next month, Brad Sanders reviews the fundamental truths according to Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs. In his book, “Principles: Life and Work,” Dalio invites readers to discover the innovative tools he refined over the years to build the fifth most important private company in the United States. Dalio shares his straightforward approach to decision making and his “radical truths” that anyone can apply, no matter what they are seeking to achieve.