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Pixar's Principles - Input Junkie
April 1st, 2011
02:36 am

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Pixar's Principles
From Mekong Insight:
Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.

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What’s equally tough, of course, is getting talented people to work effectively with one another. That takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time. What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity. If we get that right, the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places. I know what I’m describing is the antithesis of the free-agency practices that prevail in the movie industry, but that’s the point: I believe that community matters.

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During this incubation stage, you can’t judge teams by the material they’re producing because it’s so rough-there are many problems and open questions. But you can assess whether the teams’ social dynamics are healthy and whether the teams are solving problems and making progress.

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This group consists of John and our eight directors (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brenda Chapman, Lee Unkrich, Gary Rydstrom, and Brad Lewis). When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group (and anyone else they think would be valuable) and show the current version of the work in progress. This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better. There’s no ego. Nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another. They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late. The problem-solving powers of this group are immense and inspirational to watch.

After a session, it’s up to the director of the movie and his or her team to decide what to do with the advice; there are no mandatory notes, and the brain trust has no authority. This dynamic is crucial. It liberates the trust members, so they can give their unvarnished expert opinions, and it liberates the director to seek help and fully consider the advice. It took us a while to learn this. When we tried to export the brain trust model to our technical area, we found at first that it didn’t work. Eventually, I realized why: We had given these other review groups some authority. As soon as we said, “This is purely peers giving feedback to each other,” the dynamic changed, and the effectiveness of the review sessions dramatically improved.

This is as pure an example of the SNAFU principle-- Communication is only possible between equals-- as I've seen. As you can tell by the name, the usual evidence of the principle is disaster caused by people who'd rather have hierarchy than communication.

However, it's clear that the challenge is having just enough of the right sort of hierarchy-- managers have enough authority to protect non-hierarchical communication.

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[Daily reviews] People’s overwhelming desire to make sure their work is “good” before they show it to others increases the possibility that their finished version won’t be what the director wants.


Link thanks to gwern at Less Wrong.

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/477856.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

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From:andrewducker
Date:April 1st, 2011 08:28 am (UTC)
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Thanks - that was fascinating!
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From:richardthinks
Date:April 1st, 2011 09:37 am (UTC)
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Have you seen this on the performance of gender and safety on oil rigs?

...do you know ratmmjess? He has lots of interesting stuff to say.
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From:terriwells
Date:April 1st, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
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Wow, nice. The quote at the end elicited an "awwwwww" from me.
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From:ckd
Date:April 1st, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC)
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That is incredible. Thanks for linking to it!
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From:metahacker
Date:April 1st, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)
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This is a great interview with Ed Catmull.

So great I snagged a bunch of quotes from it when it was published a few years ago. I'm a little surprised to see the site above failing to give credit to the original publisher (apparently Harvard Press, now behind a paywall)...
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