What Does Pixar’s Collective Genius Look Like?

What Does Pixar’s Collective Genius Look Like?

by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback  |   2:00 PM June 11, 2014

What happens when an organization innovates? What does that process look like?

It’s an important question if you want more innovation, because the answer will shape what you do as a leader. If you think, as many do, that innovation comes from hiring a few “creative” people and implementing their best ideas, then you might assume your job is to find those people, sequester them in R&D or Product Development, review the solutions they propose, and adopt the winners.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. We’ve been studying innovative groups and their leaders for the past decade, and we’ve seen how that process works in organizations that are able to innovate over and over and over.

Innovation, of course, is the creation of something both novel and useful. It can be large or small, incremental or breakthrough, a new product, a new service, a new process, a new business model, a new way of organizing – any new way of solving a problem. Contrary to the popular myth that it’s the work of solitary genius, organizational innovation is most often the work of many hands – a “team sport,” as one leader told us.

So, if you want more innovation from the group you lead, start by understanding what really happens when an organization innovates – how that “team sport” is played.

For that, there are few better examples than Pixar Animation Studios, one of the innovative organizations we studied. It produced Toy Story in 1995, the first computer-generated (CG) feature film ever, and then went on to make an unprecedented string of 14 (and still counting) hit CG movies, each an innovative tour de force.

Because most everyone has seen at least one Pixar movie, you most likely understand already from personal experience the product Pixar produces. What you probably don’t know, however, is howPixar does what it does – that hundreds of people, years of work, and hundreds of millions of dollars are required to make a CG film. The advantage of CG films for moviemakers is that they provide complete artistic freedom. The only limits are those of imagination, not the realities of the physical world and what a camera can record. But that freedom comes with a price. Everything in the film –everything – down to the tiniest speck of dust, the way a character’s eyebrow arches for one split second, or the subtle flow of a shadow across a character’s face must be consciously conceived, created, and inserted by one of those hundreds of people in a way that advances and enriches the story.

As Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar, told us, every Pixar film “contains tens of thousands of ideas.”

They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200- to 250-person group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.

Now, with that process and Catmull’s words in mind, recall what you saw when you watched a Pixar movie – the final outcome of this long, complicated, recursive process. The engaging images and sounds flowed by seamlessly on the screen in front of you, each fitting into a coherent whole, seemingly the work of a master storyteller, not the collective work of hundreds.

In that contrast – between the apparent simplicity of what appeared onscreen and the complexity of the process that produced it – you can see the fundamental nature and ultimate challenge of all organizational innovation: to create, in the language we’ve adopted, a coherent work of singularcollective genius from the diverse slices of genius contributed by all the individuals involved.

Talent matters, obviously, but any organization that wants to innovate again and again must do more than hire a few “creative” individuals. Even with the right people, there’s still the huge problem of getting them to work together productively.

What does this say about the task of leaders who want more innovation? It says, above all, that no leader can make innovation happen, just as no director can conceive and create all the pieces that make a great CG film. Instead, leaders must create an environment that draws out the slice of genius in each individual and then melds those many slices into a single work of innovation – a new product, a new process, a new strategy, a new film – that is collective genius. This almost magical transformation is what truly innovative organizations are able to do well, over and over.

Ed Catmull discovered this basic truth in making the first CG feature film, and it surely played a role in Pixar’s ability to go on and make hit after hit after hit:

For 20 years, I pursued a dream of making the first computer-animated film. To be honest, after that goal was realized – when we finished Toy Story – I was a bit lost. But then I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to help create the unique environment that allowed that film to be made. My new goal became…to build a studio that had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic.

As a leader who wants more innovation, ask yourself if your organization is able to “create magic” by transforming individual slices of genius into collective genius. If it cannot, you may need to start by rethinking the way you lead.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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