Three things I've learned from Pixar
Sunday afternoons, I usually end up folding laundry while watching the most interesting documentary I can find on cable. A week or two ago, that documentary was about the history of Pixar. Just watching Pixar staff talk about their work was a learning experience for me:
1. When Pixar built its own headquarters building in 1998 (a headquarters that has been significantly expanded since), a stated goal was to design the building in a way that would "encourage unplanned collaboration." I found that idea fascinating: How do you plan for the unplanned? But Pixar sees such value in serendipity and unplanned connections between staff that it puts significant effort into encouraging them.
2. I noticed that as Pixar began work on each new film, giant figures from that film could be seen in the central lobby of their headquarters. It struck me as a great visual way to remind the Pixar team of the company's central purpose, each and every day. As staff walk through the doors, they can't help but notice the giant figures from Monsters Inc. or The Incredibles and remember that their work is part of what's going to make that movie great.
3. Multiple interviewees during the documentary talked about how each new movie began with some difficult technical challenge. When Toy Story was developed, it was the longest computer-animated movie made to that date (Pixar's previous projects had all been short films). When Monsters Inc. was in production, animating the monsters' fur was a huge stumbling block. When Pixar moved on to The Incredibles, animators had to find ways to create human characters, hair, fabric, and more.
In each case, Pixar's team saw the challenge as an inspiration, not a stumbling block. Instead of saying, "We'll have to scale the movie back" or "We'll have to come up with a character design that doesn't cause us these problems," they used these opportunities to take computer animation to a whole new level. That's not to say it was easy--there was more than one story told about the sheer amount of work it took to lay the technical groundwork for the animation you see on the screen--but the Pixar mindset seems to be one of seeing the opportunity to grow and learn rather than looking for ways to cut corners.
Luckily enough, one of the Annual Meeting thought leader sessions, "Innovate the Pixar Way," will take an even closer look at Pixar. I'm looking forward to learning more. (And in the meantime, there's some great info on Pixar in both Wired and in this HBR blog post.)
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