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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Fostering Creativity & Innovation @ Pixar

( Via Evelyn Rodriguez) Chris Warren writes, Pixar Animation Studios’ approach to creativity is a story worth the price of admission. Excerpts:

Everything, including the company’s workspace, is calculated to squeeze every last
shred of creativity and innovation out of Pixar employees. Calculated creativity might sound like an oxymoron, but ask most innovation experts and you’ll get the same answer: Innovation, particularly in business, is the result of design. “Creativity is the result of ritual and routine,” says Patricia Ryan Madson, who teaches drama at Stanford University and is often called upon by corporations to help boost innovation. “My experience is that creativity is not random wildness at all. Truly creative companies are disciplined, and understand that creativity requires a stable crucible in which to happen.”

If nothing else, Pixar,cofounded by Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs in 1986, is serious about creativity. Take the office space, for example: The open, inviting common area in the building’s main atrium is meant to lure people out of their offices to interact with colleagues from all facets of the company. “Anybody needs to be able to talk to anybody else. Creativity doesn’t follow titles, it just comes from where it comes from,” says Pixar’s president, Ed Catmull. “You’ll make chance encounters. You don’t have to arrange to see somebody. You’ll cross them in the hall, stop and have a discussion, talk about something you haven’t had time to talk about, and that can change the course of things.”

One of the first things all new employees at Pixar do is attend the aptly named Pixar University. Initially conceived as a way to train new hires, Pixar University has expanded its scope significantly since it was first started, now offering courses to all employees in everything imaginable, from Pilates and tai chi to sculpture, drawing, and im¬¬prov¬i¬¬sa¬tion. The classes have played an important part in fostering Pixar’s culture of creativity. Not only do they naturally bring people together to share ideas and help hone or develop skills that may help them in their work, they also encourage people to take risks, a vital component in innovation. At Pixar University, employees are first introduced to a practice that the company considers vital to creativity: a constant sharing and assessment of work. It’s somewhat counter¬intuitive, and often uncomfortable. When given an assignment, say, in a drawing class, most people would prefer to sweat over it, tweak it, and perfect it, particularly since they know world-class artists will be examining it. Instead, at Pixar University, and at Pixar in general, you share what you’ve done almost immediately. “You get over the embarrassment [of showing your work] because you’re doing it every day; every¬body is doing it. When you get over the embarrassment, you become more creative,” says Catmull. Without the worry and anxiety — indeed, the sense of risk — that comes hand in hand with revealing themselves, people remove the filter that sometimes keeps great ideas trapped in their heads.
Having a culture that encourages people to unload all their ideas without feeling threatened is vital to everything Pixar does. “When you look at a movie, there are thousands and thousands of ideas,” says Catmull. The director and the company need them all to come up with the very best ideas for the story, characters, and visuals of a film. In fact, everyone at the company will tell you there are no bad ideas at Pixar, even if they don’t end up in a movie. Consider the entire four-year process of making a movie. The first two years are devoted almost entirely to developing the narrative of the story and the characters, beginning with a storyboard and eventually resulting in a story reel. Only in the third and fourth years does technology really come into play. And that is very much by design. Why? Technology always serves the story, not vice versa.
Catmull, who is as low-key as Bird is animated, talks assuredly about what he sees as the most important element in having a creative, innovative company: the right people. “Give a great idea to a mediocre team and they’ll screw it up,” he says. “Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they’ll modify it and make it great.” An Excellent Read..

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