Creativity Inc

date Dec 5, 2015
authors Ed Catmuli
reading time 36 mins

This was an insightful book on creativity, leadership, team work and excellence in the pursuit of making animation films, but the concepts in this book can be applied to any creative or engineering fields


Art + Technology

Walt Disney was one of my two boyhood idols. The other was Albert Einstein. To me, even at a young age, they represented the two poles of creativity. Disney was all about inventing the new. He brought things into being both artistically and technologically that did not exist before. Einstein, by contrast, was a master of explaining that which already was.

Birth of Star Wars

in 1976, the idea of incorporating high technology into Hollywood filmmaking wasn’t just a low priority; it wasn’t even on the radar. But one man was about to change that, with a movie called Star Wars.

Working with George Lucas

In the intervening years, George has said that he hired me because of my honesty, my “clarity of vision,” and my steadfast belief in what computers could do. Not long after we met, he offered me the job.

Meeting John Lasseter

That animator was John Lasseter. Unbeknownst to me, soon after our meeting at Lucasfilm, he would lose his job at Disney. Apparently, his supervisors felt that The Brave Little Toaster was like him a little too avant-garde. They listened to his pitch and, immediately afterward, fired him.

Meeting Steve Jobs

He came to Lucasfilm one afternoon for a tour of our hardware lab. Again, he pushed and prodded and poked. What can the Pixar Image Computer do that other machines on the market can’t? Who do you envision using it? What’s your long-term plan? His aim didn’t seem to be to absorb the intricacies of our technology as much as to hone his own argument, to temper it by sparring with us. Steve’s domineering nature could take one’s breath away. At one point he turned to me and calmly explained that he wanted my job.

Clash of Titans

After Steve left, Bill turned to me and said, “Boy, is he arrogant.” When Steve came by our booth again later, he walked up to me and said of Bill: “Boy, is he arrogant.” I remember being struck by this clash-of-the-titans moment. I was amused by the fact that each man could see ego in the other but not in himself.

Americans teaching manufacturing to Japan - how talent / knowledge is passed on

Once he arrived, he became deeply involved with the country’s reconstruction effort and ended up teaching hundreds of Japanese engineers, managers, and scholars his theories about improving productivity. Among those who came to hear his ideas was Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony Corp. one of many Japanese companies that would apply his ideas and reap their rewards.

Respect and constant thrashing out of details

He might dismiss my points again, but I would keep coming back until one of three things happened: (1) He would say “Oh, okay, I get it” and give me what I needed; (2) I’d see that he was right and stop lobbying; or (3) our debate would be inconclusive, in which case I’d just go ahead and do what I had proposed in the first place. Each outcome was equally likely, but when this third option occurred, Steve never questioned me. For all his insistence, he respected passion. If I believed in something that strongly, he seemed to feel, it couldn’t be all

Apple vs Pixar

At Apple, he had the reputation for being deeply involved in the most minute detail of every product, but at Pixar, he didn’t believe that his instincts were better than the people here, so he stayed out. That’s how much candor matters at Pixar: It overrides hierarchy.

Steve’s criticism

But while in the early days his opinions would swing wildly and his delivery could be abrupt, he became more articulate and observant of people’s feelings as time went on. He learned to read the room, demonstrating skills that, years earlier, I didn’t think he had.

Larger than life

Steve reached down to pull up his socks by grabbing them through his pants putting his fingers right where the holes were! “Here Steve was worth millions, but apparently getting a new pair of pants was not important to him,” Pete said. “Or maybe he needed new socks with better elastic. Either way, it was a humanizing aspect to this larger-than-life guy.”


Dealing with problems

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.

Great work

While there was much innovation that enabled our work, we had not let the technology overwhelm our real purpose: making a great film.

Success begets success

Gradually, a pattern began to emerge: Someone had a creative idea, obtained funding, brought on a lot of smart people, and developed and sold a product that got a boatload of attention. That initial success begat more success, luring the best engineers and attracting customers who had interesting and high-profile problems to solve.

Deep introspection > competition

What interested me was not that companies rose and fell or that the landscape continually shifted as technology changed but that the leaders of these companies seemed so focused on the competition that they never developed any deep introspection about other destructive forces that were at work.

Sustainable creative culture!

I began to see my role as a leader more clearly. I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.

Talent and people

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.


I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete.

Creative place

It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John and I realized what was wrong. Sitting around that table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up.

Don’t despair even if the industry is not born yet

Nevertheless, it soon became clear to me that I would never be talented enough to join Disney Animation’s vaunted ranks. What’s more, I had no idea how one actually became an animator. There was no school for it that I knew of.

Own interest > Organisation

It may sound odd, given how large Walt Disney had always loomed in my life, but I turned the offer down without hesitation. The theme park job felt like a diversion that would lead me down a path I didn’t want to be on. I didn’t want to design rides for a living. I wanted to animate with a computer.

Work on something or create it

The leaders of my department understood that to create a fertile laboratory, they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy. They had to offer feedback when needed but also had to be willing to stand back and give us room. I felt instinctively that this kind of environment was rare and worth reaching for. I knew that the most valuable thing I was taking away from the U of U was the model my teachers had provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers. The question for me, then, was how to get myself into another environment like this or how to build one of my own.


To ensure that it succeeded, I needed to attract the sharpest minds; to attract the sharpest minds, I needed to put my own insecurities away. The lesson of ARPA had lodged in my brain: When faced with a challenge, get smarter.

Creating your own culture and business

But he also had no desire to be too close to Los Angeles, because he thought there was something a bit unseemly and inbred about it. Thus, he created his own island, a community that embraced films and computers but pledged allegiance to neither of the prevailing cultures that defined those businesses.

Managers need support from their team

Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who’d be charged with employing them. I took that lesson to heart.

Getting the core right more than visual polish == Getting the right mission more than ornaments

This was my first encounter with a phenomenon I would notice again and again, throughout my career: For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

Principles > Money

With that vision came something else, however: an unusual style of interacting with people. Steve was often impatient and curt. When he attended meetings with potential customers, he wouldn’t hesitate to call them out if he sniffed mediocrity or lack of preparation hardly a helpful tactic when trying to make a deal or develop a loyal client base.

Pricing and impressions - always start high for pricing?

So based on the profit margins we wanted, we decided on a price of $122,000 per unit. Big mistake. The Pixar Image Computer quickly gained a reputation for being powerful but too expensive. When we lowered the price later, we discovered that our reputation for being overpriced was all anyone remembered. Regardless of our attempts to correct it, the first impression stuck.

Production line and every person’s responsibility

Several phrases would later be coined to describe these revolutionary approaches phrases like “just-in-time manufacturing” or “total quality control” but the essence was this: The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line.

Continuous improvement

Deming’s approach and Toyota’s, too gave ownership of and responsibility for a product’s quality to the people who were most involved in its creation. Instead of merely repeating an action, workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and this next element seemed particularly important to me feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken. This resulted in continuous improvement, driving out flaws and improving quality.


But Deming’s work would make a huge impression on me and help frame my approach to managing Pixar going forward. While Toyota was a hierarchical organization, to be sure, it was guided by a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.

Single goal

I had spent twenty years inventing new technological tools, helping to found a company, and working hard to make all the facets of this company communicate and work well together. All of this had been in the service of a single goal: making a computer-animated feature film. And now, we’d not only done it; thanks to Steve, we were on steadier financial ground than we’d ever been before. For the first time since our founding, our jobs were safe.

Constructive feedback

John and I had very conscientiously tried to make sure that everyone at Pixar had a voice, that every job and every employee was treated with respect. I truly believed that self-assessment and constructive criticism had to occur at all levels of a company, and I had tried my best to walk that talk.


To that end, I started sticking my head into people’s offices, pulling up a chair and asking them for their view on how Pixar was and wasn’t working. These conversations were intentionally open-ended.

Building a sustainable culture

But one thing could not have been more plain: Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.

What is the most important thing?

The first principle was “Story Is King,” by which we meant that we would let nothing not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities get in the way of our story.

Team? or Idea?

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.

People > Ideas

To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular.

Hiring people, not scripts

Going forward, the development department’s charter would be not to develop scripts but to hire good people, figure out what they needed, assign them to projects that matched their skills, and make sure they functioned well together.

Protecting lives > work

Toy Story 2 was a case study in how something that is usually considered a plus a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline could destroy itself if left unchecked. Though I was immensely proud of what we had accomplished, I vowed that we would never make a film that way again. It was management’s job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs. Not to do so would be irresponsible.

Candor > Honesty

One way to do that is to replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor. Candor is forthrightness or frankness not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve.

Healthy creative culture

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.


Compounding matters is the fact that you aren’t the only one who’s struggling with these doubts. Everyone is; societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions. Then there’s human nature. The more people there are in the room, the more pressure there is to perform well.

Creative Process

We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.

Iterative process

A new version of the movie is generated every three to six months, and the process repeats itself. (It takes about twelve thousand storyboard drawings to make one 90-minute reel, and because of the iterative nature of the process I’m describing, story teams commonly create ten times that number by the time their work is done.)

Complex projects

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.

You are not your idea

The film itself not the filmmaker is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.

Being decisive

In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one. In that scenario, the only unacceptable course of action is running between the hills.

Being a child for life

But I believe that everyone begins with the ability to draw. Kids are instinctively there. But a lot of them unlearn it. Or people tell them they can’t or it’s impractical. So yes, kids have to grow up, but maybe there’s a way to suggest that they could be better off if they held onto some of their childish ideas.

Heated argument + frankness + debate == healthy

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its most essential ingredients, those four things would surely be among them. But newcomers often notice something else first: the volume. Routinely, Braintrust attendees become so energized and excited that they talk over each other, and voices tend to rise. I’ll admit that there have been times when outsiders think they’ve witnessed a heated argument or even some kind of intervention.

Vigilant watch during meeting

It is the job of the manager to watch the dynamics in the room, although sometimes a director will come in after a meeting to say that some people were holding back. In these cases, the solution is often to convene a smaller group a sort of mini-Braintrust to encourage more direct communication by limiting the number of participants.

Qualifications of the people

“Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.”

Candor in meeting rooms > hallways

Believe me, 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 matters of policy are being hashed out.

No problem at all? Watch out.

“It’s really strange,” I told him. “We haven’t had a single big problem on this film.” Many people would have been happy with this news. Not Steve. “Watch out,” he said. “That’s a dangerous place to be.”


Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Be wrong as fast as possible - rapid learning

To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning. Andrew does this without hesitation.

Failure as an investment

While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Playfulness == fun

This is key: When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work even when it is confounding them.

Doing + Shipping »> Planning + Mapping

The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.

Surprises for leaders in front of external people? Sure!

In many workplaces, it is a sign of disrespect if someone surprises a manager with new information in front of other people. But what does this mean in practice? It means that there are pre-meetings before meetings, and the meetings begin to take on a pro forma tone. It means wasted time. It means that the employees who work with these people walk on eggshells. It means that fear runs rampant. Getting middle managers to tolerate (and not feel threatened by) problems and surprises is one of our most important jobs;

Original !== pretty

Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.”

Giving new ideas a safe place

When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas our ugly babies aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature. They are abandoned or never conceived of in the first place. Emphasis is placed on doing safer projects that mimic proven money-makers just to keep something anything! moving

Balancing all groups

But if the director is able to get everything he or she wants, we will likely end up with a film that’s too long. If the marketing people get their way, we will only make a film that mimics those that have already been “proven” to succeed in other words, familiar to viewers but in all likelihood a creative failure. Each group, then, is trying to do the right thing, but they’re pulling in different directions. If any one of those groups “wins,” we lose.

Intentions > Goals

I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions. What does that mean? It means that we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information or are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t.

Why internships

Internship programs are mechanisms for spotting talent and seeing if outsiders fit in. Moreover, new people bring an infusion of energy. To me, it seemed like a win-win.

How to encourage interns with cost accounting?

Instead, I decided to make the interns a corporate expense they would essentially be available, at no extra cost, to any department who wanted to take them on.

Protecting the new

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Wouldn’t change? :p

“You promised the merger wouldn’t affect the way we work,” they’d say. “You said that Pixar would never change.” This happened enough that I called another company-wide meeting to explain myself. “What I meant,” I said, “was that we aren’t going to change because we were acquired by a larger company. We will still go through the kinds of changes that we would have gone through anyway. Furthermore, we are always changing, because change is a good thing.”

Blending in something safe and something original

We recognized that making sequels, which were likely to do well at the box office, gave us more leeway to take those risks. Therefore, we came to the conclusion that a blend one original film each year and a sequel every other year, or three films every two years seemed a reasonable way to keep us both financially and creatively healthy.

Little inconsistencies

We’ve found over the years that if people are enjoying the world you’ve created, they will forgive little inconsistencies, if they notice them at all.

Making a list

To this day, he says, “I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong.

Changing your mind constantly

I think the person who can’t change his or her mind is dangerous. Steve Jobs was known for changing his mind instantly in the light of new facts, and I don’t know anyone who thought he was weak.

Occam’s Razor

One truly influential idea in physics is the famous principle known as Occam’s Razor, attributed to William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century English logician. On the most basic level, it says that if there are competing explanations for why something occurs the way it does, you should pick the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and is thus the simplest.

Unknown is not our enemy

The mechanisms that keep us safe from unknown threats have been hardwired into us since before our ancestors were fighting off saber-toothed tigers with sticks. But when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it

Dealing with failures

Here, in rapid succession, we’d had two failures and one success, all of them random, all of them unforeseen. The real lesson of the event, though, was in how we dealt with its aftermath. In short, we didn’t waste time playing the blame game. After the loss of the film, our list of priorities, in order, were: (1) Restore the film; (2) Fix our backup systems; (3) Install precautionary restrictions to make it much more difficult to access the deletion command directly.

Giving ownership to people

Moreover, it helps you remain open to an important reality: If all our careful planning cannot prevent problems, then our best method of response is to enable employees at every level to own the problems and have the confidence to fix them. We want people to feel like they can take steps to solve problems without asking permission.

How should mistakes be made

The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval. Mistakes will still be made, but in my experience, they are fewer and farther between and are caught at an earlier stage.

Wrong to only look towards one person

For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo.

Uncovering the unseen

But I believe the deeper issue is that the leaders of these companies were not attuned to the fact that there were problems they could not see. And because they weren’t aware of these blind spots, they assumed that the problems didn’t exist. Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

People and hierarchy - be careful about candor!

As my position changed, people became more careful how they spoke and acted in my presence. I don’t think that my actions changed in a way that prompted this; my position did …** Gradually, snarky behavior, grousing, and rudeness disappeared from view from my view**, anyway. I rarely saw bad behavior because people wouldn’t exhibit it in front of me.

When you rise in hierarchy, access to information changes

Instead, many new leaders assume, wrongly, that their access to information is unchanged. But that is just one example of how hidden-ness affects a manager’s ability to lead.


If we don’t acknowledge how much is hidden, we hurt ourselves in the long run. Acknowledging what you can’t see getting comfortable with the fact that there are a large number of two-inch events occurring right now, out of our sight, that will affect us for better or worse, in myriad ways helps promote flexibility. You might say I’m an advocate for humility in leaders.

Success and it’s challenge

But having stumbled into greatness once, they are not eager for another trip into the unknown. That’s because success makes them warier than ever of failure, so they retreat, content to repeat what they have done before. They stay on the side of the known.

Some steps for creativity:

  1. Dailies, or Solving Problems Together
  2. Research Trips
  3. The Power of Limits 4. Integrating Technology and Art
  4. Short Experiments
  5. Learning to See
  6. Postmortems
  7. Continuing to Learn

Stumbling upon the unknown

Ultimately, what we’re after is authenticity. What feels daunting to the filmmakers when John sends them out on such trips is that they don’t yet know what they are looking for, so they’re not sure what they will gain. But think about it: You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar. In my experience, when people go out on research trips, they always come back changed.

Leadership and their skills

One of the advantages we had at Pixar, from the beginning, was that technology, art, and business were integrated into the leadership, with each of the company’s leaders me, John, and Steve paying a fair amount of attention to the areas where we weren’t considered expert.

Experimenting with short films

Our short films are Pixar’s way of experimenting, and we produce them in the hopes of getting exactly these kinds of glimpses. Over the years, Pixar has become known for including short films at the beginning of our feature films.

Data and patterns

It is very easy to find false patterns in data. Instead, I prefer to think of data as one way of seeing, one of many tools we can use to look for what’s hidden. If we think data alone provides answers, then we have misapplied the tool. It is important to get this right.

Creativity as a marathon

In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint.

unknown and originality

Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking. And

Not perfect, not overthinking

“I notice the same thing when I storyboard. I do my best work when I’m zipping through the scene, not overthinking, not worrying if every drawing is perfect,

Decisions > indecision

Instead, he favors being decisive, then forgiving yourself if your initial decision proves misguided.

As you progress…

On A Bug’s Life, Bob says, Andrew compared making a movie to an archeological dig. This adds yet another element to the picture the idea that as you progress, your project is revealing itself to you.

Meditation and mindfulness

If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes. Mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.


Others were strictly related to personal expression. (Number 11, for example, stated that Pixar employees must remain free to exercise their creative freedom with their titles and names on their business cards; number 33 ensured that Pixar’s people could continue to exert “personal cube/office/space decorating to reflect person’s individuality.”)

No special treatment for managers

“No assigned parking for any employee, including executives. All spaces are first-come, first served.”)

No obligation for work

We declined. It is a tenet of the Pixar culture that people should work there because they want to, not because a contract requires them to, and as a result, no one at Pixar was under contract.

The gatekeepers

They were mandatory, delivered as a list, with boxes next to each item boxes that had to be checked as each note was executed. Even worse: None of the people who were giving these notes had ever made a film before, and the three sets of notes often conflicted with one another, creating a sort of schizophrenic quality to the feedback.

Clear segregation of teams

What this meant was that neither would do any production work for the other, no matter how pressing the deadlines or how dire the situation. No exceptions. Why? Because mixing the two staffs would have been a bureaucratic nightmare. But there was an overarching management principle at work as well. Simply put, we wanted each studio to know that it could stand on its own and solve its own problems.

Forging onto the future

In the aftermath of the merger, many people had asked me whether we were going to have Disney do 2D and Pixar 3D. They were expecting Disney to do the old stuff and Pixar to do the new. In the wake of The Princess and the Frog, I realized how important it was to nip this toxic way of thinking in the bud. The truth was, Disney’s directors respected the studio’s heritage, but they wanted to build on it and in order to do that, they had to be free to forge their own path.

Giving due credit personally

The distribution of bonuses one by one can take a while, but we feel it’s essential to take the time to shake each person’s hand and tell them how much their contribution mattered.

Personal project days

When Guido had the floor, he told a story about something he’d instituted in his department called “personal project days.” Two days a month, he allowed his engineers to work on anything they wanted, using Pixar’s resources to engage with whatever problem or question they found interesting.

Hiring consultants vs internal

Many companies hire outside consulting firms to organize their all-staff retreats, and I understand why: Doing them well is a monumental, enormously time-consuming undertaking. But that our own people made Notes Day happen was, I believe, key to its success. Not only did they drive the discussion in meaningful ways, but their involvement also paid its own dividends.

Excellence » Easy

Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

Smarter about working with people

In the time I worked with Steve, he didn’t just gain the kind of practical experience you would expect to acquire while running two dynamic, successful businesses; he also got smarter about when to stop pushing people and how to keep pushing them, if necessary, without breaking them.

Opening door of the new building

He didn’t want perceived barriers, so the stairs were open and inviting. He wanted a single entrance to the building so that we saw each other as we entered.


This all resulted in cross-traffic people encountered each other all day long, inadvertently, which meant a better flow of communication and increased the possibility of chance encounters. You felt the energy in the building. Steve had thought all this through with the metalogic of a philosopher and the meticulousness of a craftsman.


they invest totally, even though a part of them knows that in the end, it may not work at all. Pitching is a way of testing material, taking its measure and, importantly, strengthening it by observing how it plays to an audience. But if the idea doesn’t fly, they are extremely adept at dropping it and moving on.

Instantly changing mind

Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind. He didn’t hold on to an idea because he had once believed it to be brilliant.

Shifting focus

How do you prevent this from happening? The trick is to shift the emphasis in any meeting away from the source of an idea and onto the idea itself. People often place too much significance on the source of an idea, accepting it (or not criticizing it) because it comes from Steve or a respected director. But Steve had no interest in that kind of affirmation.

Why keeping manpower separate is important

As I have said, we decided early on that Pixar and Disney Animation should remain completely separate entities. What this meant was that neither would do any production work for the other, no matter how pressing the deadlines or how dire the situation. No exceptions. Why? Because mixing the two staffs would have been a bureaucratic nightmare. But there was an overarching management principle at work as well. Simply put, we wanted each studio to know that it could stand on its own and solve its own problems. If we made it easy for one studio to borrow people or resources from the other to help solve a problem, the upshot would be that we’d mask the problem. Not allowing such borrowing was a conscious choice on our part to force problems to the surface where we could face them head on. Almost immediately, we had a crisis on Ratatouille that would severely test this policy.