The Pixar Film “Inside Out”: The Zigzag Creative Process Succeeds Again!

Pixar’s creative process has always followed a zig-zagging, improvisational process–one that’s perfectly aligned with the lessons emerging from creativity research. All of the research is showing that effective creativity, and exceptional creators, all follow an improvisational process: you don’t know where you’re going to end up, or when you’ll get there. It takes a while (and a few successes) to learn to trust in a process It’s because at first, it can feel like aimless failure.

Pixar, the animated movie powerhouse, has stayed true to the zigzag process, because they know their successes emerged from it. From their first hit, Toy Story (with its many twists and turns documented in the book The Pixar Touch), all the way through Frozen, creative success has emerged from this unpredictable, wandering process.

Pixar’s latest movie, arriving in theaters June 19, is Inside Out, and it’s been in process since 2010. It started with the thinnest of premises: we’ll go inside of a pre-adolescent girl’s head, and we’ll personify each of the emotions she feels every day, showing Sadness and Joy (for example) as cartoon characters. Think about that very simple idea, and ask yourself: How would you make a movie out of that? What happens at Pixar is that they start without knowing how it’s going to end. They start working it out, and then expect frequent changes to happen along the way.

It looks like the zigzag process has worked yet again: The bittersweet movie got a huge positive response from critics at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s expected to make $250 million just in the USA, and it’s already being discussed as an Oscar contender.

John Lasseter, in an article in today’s New York Times, says “We’re always tearing up work and starting over. At Pixar, we trust our process.” The article mentions several zigzags: for example, they were going to have the girl’s character go into a deep depression, but as they worked this idea out, they realized “that was not appropriate” says Pete Doctor, the director of the new movie (and also of the Oscar-winning “Up”). Another zigzag: One version of the script had Joy and Fear getting together. They worked for months, but couldn’t quite make this plot work. Eventually, they decided to turn to Sadness and give her a key role, when everyone had previously been leaving Sadness to be a peripheral character. This unexpected zigzag turned out to work surprisingly well.

Not many movie studios can afford, or can trust, a director to take four or five years to go through the zigzags that the creative process requires. But there aren’t any shortcuts; this is how you get surprisingly original creativity.

Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Collective Genius is a wonderful new book by a team led by Professor Linda A. Hill of Harvard Business School. Of course, I had to read it, because my own business book is called Group Genius. With such similar titles, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of overlap with my book: we cite a lot of the same research, we choose many of the same companies for our case studies, and we provide very similar advice for leaders. Here are some quotations that resonated with my research:

People apparently prefer to believe in the rugged individualism of discovery, perhaps because they rarely get to see the sausage-making process behind every breakthrough innovation. Three decades of research has clearly revealed that innovation is most often a group effort. [Here, they cite Group Genius and many other books with similar findings.] The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role, but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others. (pp. 16-17)

What makes this new book somewhat different from mine is that this book is squarely targeted at managers–it provides very practical advice, in the three-bullet-point style common in executive education programs. For example, the three key things that effective leaders of innovation do are (1) create collaborative organizations, (2) foster discovery-driven learning, (3) support and encourage integrative decision making. Their main foil is the stereotype that the most effective leader is someone who has a strong vision, and then persuades everyone else to execute that vision. Instead, they argue,

Great leaders of innovation see their role not as take-charge direction setters but primarily as creators of a context in which others are willing and able to make innovation happen. (p. 225)

In Group Genius, I call this type of context the “collaborative web” and I provide advice on how to foster their emergence. Since Group Genius was published in 2007, I’ve done countless executive education workshops for corporate leaders, and as I’ve translated the research from my book into workable advice for executives, my own message has become much more focused on leadership practice. This book is very similar in style and spirit to my one-day workshops. Practicing executives will definitely benefit from this book, but if you have the money, you should fly in Linda Hill, or myself, to do a one-day workshop with your leadership team. I suspect this book started out as a one-day workshop and then, in conversation with a literary agent and an acquisition editor, it gradually grew into this book. As a fellow business book author, I’m particularly impressed by their long list of CEO endorsements, by folks like Tim Brown (IDEO), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Terri Kelly (Gore), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos). If you’re looking for a good read for your next business flight, or you can’t afford our speaking fees, I definitely recommend this book.

Ed Catmull and the Secrets of Pixar’s Creativity

You’ve seen his face staring at you from the cover of the April 2014 Fast Company magazine as you pass the airport bookstore: It’s Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, behind the words “How to Unleash Creativity”. Anyone would love to have this kind of news coverage: He’s called “A great leader” and “The master” (and that’s just the magazine cover). The issue contains excerpts from Catmull’s new book, Creativity, Inc. It’s a great title. (But it’s been used already: it’s the title of a 2003 book by Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. I have a copy and it’s a good book. But kudos to Catmull for creating a new a ten-year statute of limitations on book titles, I’ll support that.)

I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s innovative processes, culture, and leadership, so I’m going to buy Catmull’s new book no matter what it’s called. Inside the magazine, Rick Tetzeli calls it “the most thoughtful management book ever” and “a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.”

Here are the excerpted passages from the book that stood out for me:

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments… This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad…it has a way of reasserting itself….You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.

Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can….People say they want to be in risky environments…But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

At some point, with any film, the idea you started off with will not work.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I use Pixar as one of my case studies, to make this same point: that creativity always takes a wandering, unpredictable path (the “zig zag”) and that successful innovators know how to trust in that improvisational, emergent process. My book gives advice for how to learn to succeed, and Ed Catmull understands the same core principles of creativity and innovation.

What It Really Takes to Be Creative

Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, just published a wonderful article* about what it really takes to be creative. It’s titled “Be Wrong As Fast As You Can,” but that’s just part of it. The title is a quotation from a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar. (I often use Pixar as a case study when I’m teaching executives how to manage innovation.) Lasseter says

Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another. People don’t believe that, but it’s true.

I believe it. Take the Pixar movie WALL-E, and listen to how horrible this pitch sounds: “After humans destroy the planet and all life on it, by smothering it with their huge piles of trash, we watch a silent robot for 30 minutes as he cleans up piles of waste.”

As Lindgren puts it, this is “an acknowledgement of just how deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.” He continues:

I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated….It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.

A lot of people have a huge misconception about creativity: They think it’s about having a brilliant idea. They don’t realize that it’s not about the idea; it’s about the unpredictable, winding path that you stumble down as you work to realize the idea. That’s why I’m calling my next book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity (coming in March 2013, preorder it now!).

I love this quotation from writer Thomas Mann (from page 323 of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity):

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

If you smile in recognition (or even in pain) when you read this, then you, my friend, are a writer.

*Lindgren, Hugo. 2013. “Be wrong as fast as you can.” New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 6, pages 44-45.

Leading for Innovation

I’m reading an impressive new book from Harvard Business Press, the massive 822-page Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. It contains chapters by leading scholars like J. Richard Hackman, Joseph S. Nye, Michael E. Porter, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. I first learned about this book when I received an email from one of my European colleagues, the Italian architect Maurizio Travaglini. Travaglini is the co-author of one of the chapters, along with Professors Linda Hill and Emily Stecker of Harvard, and Greg Brandeau of Pixar. What a great set of authors! Their chapter is titled “Unlocking the slices of genius in your organization” and it’s a wonderful and concise summary of what we know about leading for innovation.

I heard from Maurizio Travaglini soon after the 2007 publication of my book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. He was excited by my book, because his architecture firm is named “Architects of Group Genius”– what a coincidence! Travaglini’s firm designs spaces to foster collaborative creativity–for example, they desiged some special session rooms for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

There are a lot of overlaps between this new article and the material I cover in Group Genius, and I’m honored that the authors quote my book extensively. Co-author Greg Brandeau of Pixar contributed many insights about innovation at Pixar, where they live and breathe the message of my book. As this article puts it, “most innovation is generated from the bottom up, by self-organizing teams of talented individuals” (p. 616). The article cites my writings on the Wright Brothers, on creative abrasion and diversity in teams, and they tell similar stories about Thomas Edison, IDEO, Pixar, Herman Miller, Gore, and even MIT’s legendary Building 20.

In my view, the most important contribution of the article is their list of five “paradoxes of innovation”–each one an opposition between two forces, in tension, and maximum innovation results when the two forces are optimally balanced for the business environment, industry sector, and goals of the company.

1. Individual identity — Collective identity

2. Support — Confrontation

3. Learning and development — Performance

4. Improvisation — Structuring

5. Bottom-up — Top-down

In my own research I’ve focused on these last two. I call it the innovation paradox: All innovation comes from a bottom-up, improvisational process, but it has to be guided by top-down structures if it is to result in successful business outcomes. It’s hard to get that balance exactly right, and the exact nature of the balance will vary with every organization. As this new book chapter says:

The leaders in our study understand that innovation is often the result of grassroots efforts. Hence, they encourage and reward both autonomy and attempts at co-design. These leaders encourage peer-driven processes of self-organizing and self-governing…Hierarchy is alive and well in these organizations, but it is used on an as-needed basis…The leaders of innovation that we have studied lead from behind, as opposed to leading from the front.

When you manage the right balance between improvisation and structure, between emergent bottom-up innovation and top-down guidance, you are leading for innovation.

Teamwork, the True Mother of Invention

Today’s New York Times (December 7, 2008) has a wonderful article by business columnist Janet Rae-Dupree, with this title (in the print edition, Business section, page 3; the online version has a different title).  She starts by quoting what I told her in a recent interview:

Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company.  Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.

Of course, I was delighted to be quoted in the article, but what makes it a great read is that she ties my research in the hands-on experience of many other executives; as she points out about the above quotation, “it’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America.”  She quotes a lot of sources you’ve already read about if you follow my blog: for example, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, writing about collective creativity in September’s Harvard Business Review.  She quotes Drew Boyd, a Cincinnati businessman, describing the brainstorming research that I discuss in my book Group Genius–showing that brainstorming is so often used ineffectively.  She talks about how Einstein’s “lone genius” image has been exaggerated, citing Hans Ohanian’s book Einstein’s Mistakes (see my blog entry on that here).

And she closes with an example I didn’t know about: the Innovation Learning Network formed by a dozen health care systems, to exchange innovative ideas.  Kaiser Permanente came up with their KP MedRite program as a result of their participation in this network: the goal of KP MedRite is to make sure nurses aren’t interrupted while they’re dispensing medications.  The director of the network, Chris McCarthy, concludes that “the group effort allows us to move much more quickly and become successful much faster.”

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!