Inside Pixar’s Leadership

There were plenty of high profile people at the Economist event in March, but hands down the best session was a simple interview with Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar [update: he has a book out now called Creativity, Inc.].

Martin Giles from the Economist did the interview, and did an excellent job letting Catmull cover some excellent territory.

Here’s the video, and below I transcribed my favorite quotes.

Interesting how little he used the word innovation, a point I made in the talk I gave on The Myths of Innovation at the same event.

(The video is hosted at The Economist – if it doesn’t appear above try the direct link)

My favorite quotes from Ed Catmull’s talk at The Economist:

On the Socratic ideal of admitting ignorance:

“We’ve got these successful things going on and we mis-perceive how we got there. Or who the influences are. And we draw these wrong ideas and we then make a series of mistakes which are not well grounded in reality. Which means the things that are happening now that are wrong at Pixar are already happening and I can’t see them. And I have to start with that premise. And through all the history… there is something going on here and I don’t know what it is.”

On secrets and ‘the management’:

Part of the behavior is I don’t know the answers. And at first that seems a little bit glib. But after awhile people get that I really don’t know the answer to a lot of these things. So we set it up so that the management really doesn’t tell people what to do. We discuss, we debate, [but] people start to refer to ‘the management’, and I say come on guys, there’s three of us, we’re all in this together, and then we’re very open and honest about the problems. Everyone feels like they own it, secrecy is very good at Pixar, it doesn’t get out into the blogs because they all know what’s wrong and it would be an act of betrayal because they want to participate in the discussion and I want them to.

On protecting a vision:

I do believe you want a vision, so you start off with a person who has a vision for a story. And we do things to try and protect that vision and its not easy to protect it, because they feel these pressures. They also have misconceptions about the creative process sometimes. We do have these people who we give a chance to on the belief they’re right, and can rise to the occasion, and we are wrong sometimes, because we can’t see what goes on in their heads. And our measure, because we can’t see inside people’s heads, is the team. If the team is functioning well, and healthy, it will solve the problem.

The process of giving feedback:

One of the protections is the notion that they have the final say so. Now this is a very hard thing to say because we say we are filmmaker led. The reason it’s hard is if they can’t lead the team, we will actually remove the person from it. That’s our version of what a failure is… it’s hard because it’s a personal thing. Until you reach that breaking point, you have to do everything you can… sometimes its adding people to the team, sometimes its removing them, but as leaders we don’t tell them what to do. We have a structure so they get their feedback from their peers… every two or three months they present *the film* to the other filmmakers… and they will go through, and they will tear the film apart. And it’s very important for that dynamic to work, because it could be a brutal process, there needs to be the feeling they are all helping each other who wants that help. In order for that to work it’s important that no one in the room has the authority to tell the director they have to take their notes [make changes]. So no-one is taking a list of what you have to do to fix the film. All we can do is give the feedback and he goes off with the feedback… our job as leaders is to protect the dynamic in the room so that they’re honest with each other.

The idea of honesty as an abstraction easy to ignore:

They don’t want to walk in and embarrass themselves, they don’t want to say anything stupid, they don’t want to offend anyone, so these personal pressures and responses start to emerge. So I do see it happen, and it happened fairly recently, and I walked out, and I knew they weren’t honest. So then you call them in, maybe two or three people, and say why didn’t you say what you thought. And it’s a personal thing. So we have to change the dynamic. When we have something tricky and that’s holding things back, we have to have a four person or five person meeting, where the dynamics are different. And sometimes where things are actually going pretty well, then you want to have a room of 25 people, see how it works, and let them express themselves and have them grow. But if you have 25 people in the room some of them then start to perform, rather than participate. So there is this balance, what is the state of the thing… we need to have honesty, we want to have honesty, but honest is a buzzword. It’s one of these things we hear, everyone nods their head on, ‘it’s all true’, [but] the gap between the abstractions and where people actually do it is enormous. And people fill it in with all sorts of crap.

On the limits of platitudes:

I don’t like hard rules at all. I think they’re all bullshit.

Dealing with tough, competing constraints:

If I look at the range, you’ve got one [constraint] that is art school, I’m doing this for arts sake, Ratatouille and WALL-E clearly fall more on that side, the other is the purely commercial side, where you’ve got a lot of films that are made purely for following a trend, if you go entirely for the art side then eventually you fail economically. if you go purely commercially then I think you fail from a soul point of view… we’ve got these elements pulling on both sides, the art side and the commercial side… and the the trick is not to let one side win. That fundamentally successful companies are unstable. And where we have to operate is in that unstable place. And the forces of conservatism which are very strong and they want to go to a safe place. I want to go to the same place for money, I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And I just want to stay right there in the middle.

On firing creative geniuses:

[At Pixar] there is very high tolerance for eccentricity, very creative, and to the point where some are strange… but there are a small number of people who are socially dysfunctional [and] very creative – we get rid of them. If we don’t have a healthy group then it isn’t going to work. There is this illusion that this person is creative and has all this stuff, well the fact is there are literally thousands of ideas involved in putting something like this together. And the notion of ideas as this singular thing is a fundamental flaw. There are so many ideas that what you need is that group behaving creatively. And the person with the vision I think is unique, there are very few people who have that vision… but if they are not drawing the best out of people then they will fail.

We will support the leader for as long and as hard as we can, but the thing we can not overcome is if they have lost the crew. It’s when the crew says we are not following that person. We say we are director led, which implies they make all the final decisions, [but] what it means to us is the director has to lead.. and the way we can tell when they are not leading is if people say ‘we are not following’.

On managers self-destructive tendencies for creative work:

The notion that you’re trying to control the process and prevent error screws things up. We all know the saying it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And everyone knows that, but I Think there is a corollary: if everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them. And the natural tendency for managers is to try and prevent error and over plan things.


If you liked this post, you should check out the new paperback edition of the Myths of Innovation.

98 Responses to “Inside Pixar’s Leadership”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    Fascinating! If you substitute the post-doctoral scholars leading each project in my lab with the directors of the individual Pixar films, it sounds a lot like how I run things. I especially appreciated the point that you can’t manage so that people are afraid of error. If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not achieving anything new.

  2. Jeff V

    Love the parts about platitudes, creative geniuses, and self-destructive tendencies. Those are the biggest takeaways for me: don’t focus on setting rules, functional teams are always better than singular geniuses, and manage for success as opposed to avoiding failure. Great stuff here.

  3. Josh

    Brilliant talk, an actual eye opener to management. Thanks a lot.

  4. Chris Mower

    Dang, this was sweet. Thanks for posting! I think it’s awesome how open they are but at the same time how tight of control they have over their processes. One of the hardest parts of managing a successful company is recognizing who makes a difference and keeping them and then removing the ones who aren’t. It’s usually easy to recognize the differences between the two, the hard part is taking the action to do so.

  5. Basharat Wani

    Awesome, great stuff

    I like the below points
    As leaders we don

  6. Berthold

    Thanks for picking out the best quotes.

    Catmull is very direct, and that to me is an important part of honesty that many people try to avoid. In a healthy team, direct criticism is one of the most important assets. It doesen’t really matter how skilled somebody is at whatever they do, if they take criticism personal and can’t work with it, they can not lead. There is a difference between a visionary and an egomaniac, and this is it.

    There is also a difference in my opionion between peer or media pressure and team feedback. While people may appear to be hard to work with and arrogant to anybody outside the team, they may do wonders inside, and that’s what counts. You often hear about director so-and-so being a prick to the press, yet his team tell an entirely different story.

    Gotta love a boss like Catmull. He’s got it down.

  7. Kelly

    Hey Scott,

    Thanks another brilliant find for me. I feel like I just received a master class in self-directed teams and the importance of culture. I think Ed hit many points that you convey in Myths of Innovation along the lines of the importance of a supportive management and likewise from your talk about the 3M CEO. I happen to be part of a relatively new innovation center in healthcare and will be sharing this video with our organization.


    PS: I hope you don’t mind but I sent Sunny B. after you she does the visual recording for us in Hawaii; her help us after one of the guys on my team saw her work with Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos.

  8. Once Blond

    Walt Disney, in his heyday, said that his ‘public name of Walt Disney’ was no longer that of a singular man (himself). It had instead become a symbolic name for a creative team of artists and technicians who share a persistent vision toward a given goal.

  9. JV

    Simply Real and Honest –> “I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And I just want to stay right there in the middle.”

    I could listen to Catmull everyday – all day!!!

  10. Landon Creasy

    Sounds like a great place to work. I like the efforts made to protect a vision as well as the lack of micromanagement. Easy to see why they succeed.

  11. Aaron

    Bleh… Flash video not supported in the iPad.

  12. bill meade

    I really enjoyed your blog post on Ed Catmull. The second time I listened to the video I made a connection about Toyota and what Catmull was describing as his management process.

    Toyota people have 3 words for waste (“error” in Catmull’s evoking of Toyota I think). Muda, Mura, and Muri.

    Muda is lack of efficiency.

    Mura is the inability to focus resources on problems.

    And Muri, is an impossible situation.

    The Toyota production saying is that “avoiding the 3 Mus is the key to efficiency.”

    Catmull was having a hard time relaying his meaning to the audience, and the interviewer, i.e., just what it is that Pixar management seeks to do. He explained around the edge. He tries really hard to articulate something that at times sounds nonsensical (i.e., “I’m still trying to figure this out.” “fundamentally successful companies are unstable” and “I don’t like hard rules at all. I think they’re all bullshit.”).

    So what? Well … the inability to cleanly and directly articulate is the hallmark of people working at the cutting edge of a field. The audience does not have the receptors in their skulls to directly understand. Catmull does not have words with shared specific meanings for the group dynamic effect he’s trying to achieve. And, he’s not content to let the company make mistakes because it is “not well grounded in reality.” He is 10 and 0 with movies, which seems like a long shot.

    Except, when you know that he sees error/waste as the strategic enemy of Pixar, and he’s attacking it by refactoring his organization on the fly (i.e., “changing the dynamic”), and he knows when he is hearing people self-censoring (which seems to be a BIG red flag to him). And, he’s got this Toyota model of relentless error/waste reduction telling him where to shine the spotlight and root out error/waste. The record makes a lot more
    sense. Toyota was able to use this methodology to go much higher than 10 and 0 before the inevitable aristocratic hijacking of bureaucracy got success off the rails.

    Hope the 3 Mus is of interest.

    bill meade

    1. eas

      I think you may be going to far in applying what you understand of Toyota in trying to understand Pixar.

      I don’t get the impression from this or other things I know of Catmull and Pixar that either error/waste (or efficiency) are of primary concern.

      Pixar is no longer a manufacturing company. Efficiency and efficacy are tightly linked in manufacturing companies, not nearly as much in a creative business.

      The bottom line for Pixar is whether the movie is good. They’ve started one movie over from the beginning, and then once it was almost done, they scrapped the ending and made a new one. I get the sense that everyone there knows that they’ll do it again if they have to, which is not to say that they don’t want to avoid it, if at all possible.

      The thing about a movie (or software) is that once you have it right much of the hard work is done and the mistakes are behind you. Manufacturing on the other hand is something you have to get right and then keep getting right, or you end up as, well, GM, I guess.

      If you picked the wrong supplier, then you still have to find the right supplier every car you made has to be repaired. If the model of the baggage handling system in Toy Story 2 was rushed and ended up being almost too complicated to render, but you managed to tweak it until you got the footage, then you are done. You have to rethink things before starting the next film, but not before you release TS2.

      Bottom line is: Does the movie work? It does, or it will, if the team making it works. A working team will make mistakes, they will do things wrong. They will generate waste. Trying to eliminate that is a reliable path to breaking things.

  13. Scott Berkun


    I’m always interested in how the nuances of language have larger than expected effects. In this case I think most Americans or Westerners glom all the forms of mistakes or waste as the same and that’s part of the problem.

    Also, the idea of Mura you describe is about the process, and the perspective of people defining the process – both meta and more internal/perspective issues. They demand a kind of intraspection or meta level thinking that typical thinking about “minimizing mistakes” does not.

  14. Mohamed Mansour

    Sounds like a great place to work. I like the efforts made to protect a vision as well as the lack of micromanagement. Easy to see why they succeed.

  15. Adam

    Hey Scott
    Thanks for sharing this. It is a fantastic interview and i have already shared it with a bunch of companies i work with.

    Adam Marcus
    Openview Venture Partners

  16. Sachin

    Oh man great…i like it for most of the part..thanks it awe inspiring



  1. […] Email | Facebook | Twitter | Digg | SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "", url: "" }); We all know the saying it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And everyone knows that, but I think there is a corollary: If everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them. And the natural tendency for managers is to try and prevent error and overplan things. —Ed Catmull, President of Pixar […]

  2. […] other day I was having this discussion with @tyme where we were discussing the interpretations of Ed Catmull’s interview video where he talks about screwing up and other aspects of the Pixar leadership. Interesting to […]

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