Group Genius at Pixar

Inside of Pixar, whose creativity is responsible for great movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, and now WALL-E?  Turns out it’s no one person–it’s everyone, working together.  Pixar’s success is based on a special kind of collaborative magic. I just read a great article in the latest Harvard Business Review, by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, titled “How Pixar fosters collective creativity,” and it seems to me they’ve figured out the secrets of group genius.

It’s been obvious for a long time that no one gets very far in the movie business believing in the myth of the lone genius “artiste”.  For example, in my book EXPLAINING CREATIVITY, I wrote that most Hollywood movies have not one author, not two, but as many as ten different authors working on the script.  (Almost all TV shows are the same way.)  And Catmull starts his article dispelling the loner myth in strong terms: “Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems…A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas.”  Depending on one brilliant creator to come up with all of those ideas just wouldn’t make any sense; “every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”  (This is the central message of my book GROUP GENIUS.)

Although each movie has a core team who are responsible for the coherence of the overall product, everyone is expected “to show work in an incomplete state to the whole animation crew” so that “people learn from and inspire each other”.

Pixar believes in the power of what I call “collaborative webs”–networks of expertise that extend beyond the boundaries of any one organization.  For example, their artists are encouraged to publish their research and talk about it at industry conferences, rather than to guard it as a trade secret.  Why?  “The connection is worth far more than any ideas we may have revealed.”

And finally, Pixar’s office space is designed to foster “maximum inadvertent encounters,” just as I advise in Group Genius.  The central atrium contains the cafeteria, bathrooms, meeting rooms, and mailboxes, and Catmull writes “It’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”

I’m delighted to hear it when an organization really believes in the power of group genius, and designs everything from top to bottom to make it happen!

6 thoughts on “Group Genius at Pixar

  1. hi keith,

    thank you for this article! i love pixar. my family has a tradition. we watch every christmas evening a disney / pixar movie. that’s great! i am allways impressed about thousands of ideas and emotions that they are able to create for the audience.

    in my childhood i dreamed of some day becoming part of a pixar vision! it would be incredible. now i am a facilitator for idea factories. we help to create an environment where a group of very different people can generate a lot of ideas. maybe they will be a chance of getting involved in a disney / pixar movie! we will see.🙂

    … to your article: we also recognized an increasing creativity level in interdisciplinary groups. in our experience we discovered: with proper questions for these groups they can create amazing ideas.

    and … you mentioned that there are people who guard theire ideas as a trade secret. especially in germany you can observe this behavior! it’s very dangerous because it’s a kind of vicious circle. every time you hold back an idea or an inspiration you avoid that someone else can have a good idea. collaborative work can extremly catalyse innovative ideas. it’s a pitty to pass up this golden opportunity!

    jana

  2. Thanks Jana! That’s a great story. It’s interesting to hear about this situation in Germany, too. There are no doubt cultural differences in all of these aspects of innovation.

    I wish you the best with your work facilitating idea factories, this sounds like fascinating work!

  3. Keith:

    Many thanks for the great article on Group Genius at Pixar. Your work and writings on creativity and collaboration are inspiring! Your book “Group Genius” is one of the core texts for the Doctorate of Management Program at Colorado Technical University and is generating quite a bit of discussion regarding the connection between improvisational theater, creativity and the corporate sector. Thank you again for a very informative and pleasurable text.

    Regards

    Randall Harris
    Institute for Advanced Studies / Colorado Technical University
    DM 17 Cohort

  4. It’s great to hear that you’re using GROUP GENIUS at Colorado Technical University! I’ve heard from many business schools that are using this book in connection with creativity and innovation. Stay in touch and let me know how your students respond.

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