Pixar has been a tremendous success. It has created 14 feature films, and 13 of those sit in the list of top 50 highest grossing films that are animated. It has won 15 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards and 11 Grammy Awards and each film brings in on average more than $600 million. This makes it an extremely profitable enterprise. By the end of 2013 Pixar had made $8.6 billion globally from its feature films. Some of the most successful are Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 is the second all-time highest grossing animated film, following Frozen from Walt Disney. Pixar Animation Studios, more commonly known simply as Pixar is a computer animation film studio which is based in California, USA. The company was founded in 1979 when it was known as the Graphics Group and was a component of Lucasfilm. In 1986, Steve Jobs spun it out as a corporation and became a majority shareholder. The Walt Disney Company now owns Pixar.
What explain Pixar Success?
What explains Pixar success? Pixar works hard at taking an idea and putting in the hard graft to take the good idea from a place where the movie is not that good to where it is excellent. As Greg Satell (2015) of Digital Tonto argues:
“That takes more than talent… it is a highly disciplined affair.”
At the heart of the process is a innovative method that relies on a deep sense of collaboration, and productive feedback. It is this productive feedback that is disciplined. It is argued that while some films are brought about by an amazing spark of inspiration many others start out as what is described by Ed Catmull, Pixar founder as “ugly babies”. Where the inspiration comes in is seeing how an ugly baby can be transformed into an amazing, finely polished end product that wins Academy Awards. This is argued to be extremely challenging. Sometimes it is tempting to crush new ideas before they get up and running, but it is explained that this is not what should be done, and in fact they should be nurtured, since all great works start out as “ugly babies”.
While on the one hand protecting these new ideas and giving them life is important, on the other hand being too positive about them is also a bad idea. After all, without constructive feedback it is not possible for anything to change, grow and evolve into something amazing. The feedback process needs to be honest so that problems can be pinpointed and resolved. Constructive feedback needs to be exactly that: constructive. Feedback that is just someone saying they don’t like it is not effective, and feedback that is personal is also unhelpful. The feedback process needs to seek to improve.
Pixar focus on constructive feedback
Feedback, it is argued, was completely integral to the process undertaken by the founders of Pixar and it is believed to be one of the elements that has made Pixar great and a huge creative success story. Yet feedback that is disjointed or conflicting is not helpful for organisations, nor will feedback be effective if there is not trust in place. It is explained that at Pixar a group called “braintrust” is in operation. This is a group of directors and producers that are at a high level in the organisation that are focused on giving feedback to fledgling films. Every person who is part of the brain trust group is actually a filmmaker themselves and can empathise with what it feels like to get feedback.
The whole point of feedback at Pixar is to make sure that a project progresses in a positive direction. Where feedback does not fall into that category, regardless of from whom the feedback comes, it is not a valuable part of the feedback process. Occasionally ugly babies have to be put out of their misery but this is not a decision that is made as part of the creative process. Other organisations can learn from the Pixar approach, even if they are not what might commonly be thought of as creative organisations. If other companies were to implement such an approach, creative ideas may take better shape and deliver more to customers. This is something to reflect on.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.