He’s Looking to Steal My “Captain Obvious” Title

Normally, I would just have included a link in my daily del.icio.us posting to this article at GigaOm that somehow references part of a review that’s behind a pay wall at another site (I’m not sure I understand it myself), but I wanted to take the time to comment on some of the quotes pulled from the interview, because I think much of what is said is thumbs-up awesome.

For those of you who don’t know, Brad Bird is a director at Pixar. His first movie at Pixar was The Incredibles, which is my personal vote as the best piece of animation that company has ever produced.

(Actually, there are a lot of things to be said about the corporate culture—or lack thereof—at Pixar, and what that means for fostering creativity, but that’s a story for another evening.)

Keep reading for some quotes and my thoughts.

Bird talks about changes at Pixar in the making of The Incredibles:

I said, “Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.” A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well. We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here.

In any organization, there will be a group of complainers, of people who think they know how to do things better and are shut out by existing systems and by people who figure that the way things have been done are always the best way to do them.

Change in many organzations and in many places is only allowed to happen in small steps, bit by bit, slowly taking the time to analyze everything and make sure that no unnecessary risks are being assumed.

The problem with this is that great organizations become great organizations by taking huge risks and collecting the payoff. His request to gather the “black sheep,” as he calls them, and then engage them into making positive change, is an awesome idea and has a lot of merit. You don’t always have to follow the advice given by that group, but it’s likely that—since they are the ones who are actually doing the work—they will be in a position to determine the best changes to be made at that level.

On perfection:

I had to shake the purist out of them—essentially frighten them into realizing I was ready to use quick and dirty “cheats” to get something on screen… I’d say, “Look, I don’t have to do the water through a computer simulation program… I’m perfectly content to film a splash in a swimming pool and just composite the water in.” I never did film the pool splash [but] talking this way helped everyone understand that we didn’t have to make something that would work from every angle. Not all shots are created equal. Certain shots need to be perfect, others need to be very good, and there are some that only need to be good enough to not break the spell.

Sometimes, 90% really is good enough.

Related to the first point, on morale:

In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. [what’s true for a movie is true for a startup!] If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

I’m currently reading an excellent book (with some caveats) called Happy Hour is 9 to 5, which is focused entirely on workplace morale, being happy at work, and considering that metric to be one of the most powerful forces for good inside any organization. It’s a little too self-helpy for my tastes, but it has great things to say about management and about workplace attitudes and how to subtly change how you approach things in order to derive greater happiness not only from yourself, but from others.

(I’m totally going to talk about it when I’m finished with it, but I’m taking my time to analyze it well.)

This point is made over and over and over again: happy people perform better, engage people more effectively, and both accept and foster change more readily in any organization.

On not “protecting your success”:

The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved. … “You don’t play it safe—you do something that scares you, that’s at the edge of your capabilities, where you might fail. That’s what gets you up in the morning.”

I’ve already spoken to this above, but it’s better put here.

On the influence of John Lassiter and Steve Jobs on the creative process at Pixar:

If you walk around downstairs in the animation area, you’ll see that it is unhinged. People are allowed to create whatever front to their office they want. One guy might build a front that’s like a Western town. Someone else might do something that looks like Hawaii…John [Lasseter] believes that if you have a loose, free kind of atmosphere, it helps creativity.

Then there’s our building. Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.

Not everyone can have a completely awesome building like Pixar. I’ve seen a tour of the place, and it’s simply amazing to see what it looks like. It costs a fortune and has the benefit of a huge amount of land and having been built for this express purpose. There’s not much else that can be said about the building design other than that the idea to put everything common in the center is true genius (and I’m not surprised it was Jobs’ idea).

The office decorating idea is the most interesting and fascinating aspect of Pixar’s corporate (un)culture. The tours I have seen are simply amazing. It is quite literally true that the creative teams are allowed to have any atmosphere they want in each office, and each person has a separate office to foster their own creative environment. They can paint, bring in wall hangings, decorations, furniture… within certain acceptable limits of offense, they are allowed to express themselves creatively not only in their work, but also to create a workspace that reflects their personality and focuses their energies on their tasks.

On the creative process and profitability:

When I entered Disney, it was like a classic Cadillac Phaeton that had been left out in the rain… The company’s thought process was not, “We have all this amazing machinery—how do we use it to make exciting things? We could go to Mars in this rocket ship!” It was, “We don’t understand Walt Disney at all. We don’t understand what he did. Let’s not screw it up. Let’s just preserve this rocket ship; going somewhere new in it might damage it.”

Walt Disney’s mantra was, “I don’t make movies to make money—I make money to make movies.” That’s a good way to sum up the difference between Disney at its height and Disney when it was lost. It’s also true of Pixar and a lot of other companies. It seems counterintuitive, but for imagination-based companies to succeed in the long run, making money can’t be the focus.

The focus—the center—of creativity must be on the work, not on the base profitability of the work. I’m not saying you go out and hemorrhage money to make some crazy dream, as business has to be about making money, but the focus has to be on the work and on making that difference.

Keep people happy and self-motivated, keep the juices flowing, and keep the conversations moving, and the making money part will take care of itself. It’s a natural byproduct of people who love to do what they do, put their heart and soul into doing it, and then tell the world about what they are doing.

Who—after having seen one—can say that a Pixar movie doesn’t have heart; that it doesn’t have soul and love behind it?

I thought so.