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
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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