“What we’re doing is not simple for any of our companies. It’s hard. So, if you’re going to do something that’s hard, you want to value the people who are helping you solve the problems, even if they’re more silent. What they’re doing is valuable.”
Welcome to ALL HANDS by Lattice, where we believe that People Strategy IS Business Strategy. I’m your host — Katelin Holloway. For the last decade, I’ve been a People & Culture executive at some of the internet’s most beloved startups, but my fascination with building true people-first cultures started many, many years ago. From film to tech (and a few interesting layovers in between), the one common denominator remains: I am most passionate about enabling people through belonging to create beautiful, innovative products.
On All Hands, I talk with CEOs and other c-level leaders about how being a “people first” company is a strategic advantage. Join us while we chat with these top leaders about how a “people first” approach isn’t just good for people — it’s good for business too.
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Today on ALL HANDS we’re sharing a very special interview that I did as part of Lattice’s Resources for Humans Virtual Conference with Ed Catmull. He is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and author of the bestselling book. Creativity Inc.
Katelin Holloway: In addition to the unique and touching stories that are brought to life on screen, Pixar is also known for its phenomenal people-first culture.
And I would know because I had the pleasure of working under Ed’s leadership for five years. Now that was a long time ago. Yes, granted, but my experience at the studio had a profound impact on my worldview. It’s been nearly a decade since we’ve been in the same room Ed, but I’ll have, you know, I’ve given you a great deal of credit for my career arc over the years.
So even if he couldn’t pick me out of a lineup, you’ve had a pretty, pretty big impact on me, but I know that I’m not the only one. There are thousands of people who got to experience the magic of working at Pixar and have taken those first principles back out into the world. And now those people are shaping the next generation of company cultures as well.
I think few people get the opportunity to publicly thank their role models. So I wasn’t about to let this one go unsaid. So thank you. And now to the task at hand, it is my obvious pleasure to have this conversation with you today and to share a bit of that Pixar magic with our guests. Are you ready?
Ed Catmull: I’m ready. Thank you.
Katelin Holloway: Excellent. Alright, so now I’m a bit old fashioned, but I think it would be nice if we started at the beginning. Can you please quickly share a little bit about yourself and your journey to creating Pixar?
Ed Catmull: Yes. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and this is after, World War II and the Great Depression, which actually formed a culture that I grew up in and the two iconic figures of the time that I, when I was young was, uh, Albert Einstein and Walt Disney. And I wanted to be an animator, but I reached the point where I realized that I couldn’t draw well enough so I switched over into physics. Uh, now when I tell people this, they usually feel like it’s, uh, it’s rather humorous because they seem so incongruous with each other.
But my own belief is they’re not incongruous, but that actually the creativity on the scientific side and the, uh, on the artistic side are the same. I got an undergraduate degree in physics and a second one in computer science. And then when I returned to graduate school to study computer languages, uh, my very first class was in computer graphics.
This is 49 years ago, completely turned my life around because now here was a time in which the arts and the sciences in fact really did come together. It wasn’t this nice saying, it was actually true. And here was the frontier for using the computer in the arts, in the sciences. So I started to wrestle with the problem was, or what it would take to make it practical.
And then I went off to New York. I spent another five years in New York, running a research lab. Again, had some amazing people, uh, made some correct decisions, and made some really stupid decisions. And then I was hired by George Lucas to come bring technology into the film industry. George was the only person of note in this entire industry who believed the technology was going to change the industry. And that was pretty remarkable that there was this person that would do this, and he did not represent the general sense of the industry. So he basically funded it. We came up with the changes and again, I made some mistakes, I learned a lot. I hung onto the things that I realized were true and I jetted in the things that I thought were wrong.
I had friends in Silicon Valley because we all went to school. Um, the founder of Adobe who makes Photoshop was a classmate. And, uh, the founder or the person who came up with object-oriented programming, it was a classmate. And Jim Clark, the founder of the company that really got Netscape going, he was a classmate. So it was really this remarkable group of people that were together and all with this philosophy of changing the world. And I believe that that element that I saw in the classroom, there is still an underlying belief that most people have. They want to make a difference in the world. And that’s what I’ve come to value and to try to nurture because I was given help at that time in my life.
Katelin Holloway: So how did you take it from there? Once, you were in school, you have this incredible group of colleagues that you graduated with. You were hired by George Lucas to, to change the world through technology in the world of storytelling. How did that parlay then into Pixar?
Ed Catmull: Well, in the case of Lucas Films, it turns out that, George, while he was funding this, he got a divorce and she got the cash and he kept the company. It was how they divided up, but he was cash poor, and so it was necessary to sell this group. Actually, there were four groups that I was over. There was, uh, the computer graphics, digital audio, video editing and games. But for this group in graphics, it’s where our heart was, was in, in making imagery and, uh, Steve Jobs who had just been kicked out of Apple, bought us from Pixar. And that was how Pixar the company was formed. We have an incredibly good relationship with George because it wasn’t as if he had a choice. And there was no conflict or where it’s just, it’s just the reality.
Going through the disasters and the hard things and getting hit over the head with the club is the thing that makes you learn, that changes you, provided you’re open to it.
Katelin Holloway: You write about this a lot in your book, Creativity, Inc. And I would say, you know, back when you wrote it, it was not obvious that it was a, excuse me, a business book.
For me, it is the be-all, end-all to understanding how to help collect a group of people and have them produce. Uh, you know, to your point earlier about your, your education and your career and the things that you are good at and the things that you love and how sometimes those things don’t, don’t fit together exactly perfectly in your mind’s eye, but as they play out, they can really come together in a beautiful way. And one of my favorite principles in your book is around people. A lot of people think that having the right idea would be the most essential part of your business. But you, you say that having the right people with the right chemistry is far more important. And I think that the idea that people should be put before product, that that was an audacious belief 30 plus years ago. Uh, so can you explain a little bit to me about why Pixar or why you have always chosen to prioritize people?
Ed Catmull: There are several parts to it. One of them is that ideas aren’t singular. If you’re going to have a new product or make a company, there really isn’t a single idea. It’s, it’s easy for people to articulate. Like this is the key thing that our company is, is built around, but it’s not true. It’s an illusion is that if you make anything, there are thousands of ideas that are involved or necessary. And if you simplify it, then it’s also easy for a single person to take credit. Like this is the person who did it. And it, what it does is it screws up the internal story in the company, but also screws up the head of the person who thinks that. When in fact, we’re all in this together. It takes a lot of people to make something work. And if we don’t recognize that it takes a lot of us and that we’ve all contributed, even though some are silent, uh, if we don’t value that, then we actually diminish our ability to keep on doing something which is complex.
What we’re doing is not simple for any of our companies. It’s hard. So, if you’re going to do something that’s hard, you want to value the people who are helping you solve the problems, even if they’re more silent. What they’re doing is valuable.
This is something that I have definitely experienced first hand at the studio. I worked in different departments on several films over the years and I never felt less than. I always felt appreciated and valued for my work contributions — even when in the early days I was just getting somebody Marcona almonds…
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Katelin Holloway: Something that has stood out to me that I would love to hear you talk about a little bit more was about getting that right chemistry, you know, at the studio, you know, at any given time we were working on any number of films, uh, and, uh, understanding how to get the right people with that right dynamic or the right chemistry is, is a hard thing to do because people are dynamic and to your point, they change over time. So, can you share a little bit about what you think great chemistry really looks like, and maybe how you go about fostering the right environment to bring that out or to help that shine?
Ed Catmull: Well, one thing to note is that we don’t always get it right. And part of the struggle is the recognition that you put them together, you’ve tried, you take a risk and you look at it after a while and say, well, this isn’t working and they have to figure out why. I don’t want anybody to get the implication or, or, or, or walk away thinking, Oh, Pixar has got it right. There are so many issues and problems and, and the real question is how do you continually deal with them so that you get your, you’re trying to get to where you want to be with people so they feel good about it. Recognizing that sometimes, you, you don’t always get it right. And it’s like making the stories.
It’s not that you got a perfect process. You were continually in the process of analyzing and challenging and questioning what you’re doing and why something works, why it doesn’t work. So, what do we look for? And one of the things we look for is the chemistry in the group, which is a, is a visible manifestation of how things are working.
So if there is laughter in the group, that’s a good sign. The other one is while we know that, that sometimes we do something that doesn’t work uh, we don’t typically use the terminology of failure. We also don’t, don’t avoid it. If you avoid terminology, then what you’re doing is you’re just pretending that it’s not there.
But if we’re working on something, then it doesn’t work, but we don’t usually say we failed at it. It’s like, well, that didn’t work. And uh, if so, if you look at a team they’re trying to solve a problem and they’re working hard to solve the problem, uh, when they try to solve it, and it doesn’t work and they use the terminology I used, doesn’t work, I’m going to try this. The reason we don’t use the terminology of failures, failure is actually a very loaded word because it also means that you screwed up or you didn’t work hard. That’s the reason we don’t use the terminology. A nd sometimes people actually don’t work hard or they screw up, but the general case is the people are trying to solve a problem. And if it doesn’t work, they full well know that it doesn’t work. One doesn’t need to beat them over the head with it. It doesn’t work.
Katelin Holloway: I literally, I could not have said it better myself. Uh, and trust me, I have tried. So thank you for sharing that. It, it really it’s palpable when, when you are with a group of people that they are aligned on a project or a mission, and they are in the process of creating the engagement that you feel.
And, you know, there, there are so many companies out there, you know, trying to measure this, trying to quantify it. And it is challenging because at the end of the day, it is that feeling. You, you know, it, when you walk into a building the energy that surrounds what you are building and how you are building it, the dynamic, the chemistry, becomes really, really critical.
Now I want to switch a little bit to the hiring for the team. So once you have a team assembled and you are looking to add folks in to help bring it to fruition. Have you noticed over the years, are there any certain character traits that you’ve seen or that might give a good signal for if someone would be a net positive to that, that team dynamic?
Ed Catmull: Well, this is a difficult question as you’re, let me set aside for the, the question of hiring new people. Is it when I start a new project, which in our case is typically films. Who do you bring in to join the team? And the tendency is that the people working on a film are under a fair amount of pressure to deliver.
So what they want is to put on people that they know can do the job. And so, therefore, they’re looking for the experienced people in the company, but this has a negative consequence in that it’s not giving a chance to new people. It’s only looking for people that have already proven themselves.
So this creates a cultural problem. So I, at one time I was frustrated because I kept seeing this happen over and over again. So I met with the senior leaders about this and I have to say with these leaders, they’re strong believers in taking risks and doing things that are new.
So that’s the mindset of these people. Now for the same group, I asked the question, I said, okay, we’ve been doing this for years. And, uh, we go through the same process, but you frequently cannot get the people that you want so you have to take people, uh, who’ve not proven themselves. They’ve not done this job before, so you’re taking a risk on people. So of all the times that you’ve put somebody in a position, hoping that they would rise to the occasion, what percentage of the people were not able to rise to the occasion? And the answer they came back with was about 5%.
Now, this blew my mind. 5% in the noise level and 5% implies that they’re actually trying to get to 0%. They didn’t want any failures at all in the process of giving somebody a position. Okay. So I had to go back and process this. How is it that a group of people who believe in taking risks don’t want to take any risks at all on people.
And then as I thought about it, I realized that the real issue for them is that in front of them, they have an unknown problem coming at an unknown time of unknown size. That is their risk. So in order to meet that risk, they only want people who were proven to be able to manage any problem. Now, if you explain the logic to them, but the number of people who were actually able to rise to the occasion is almost all of them.
So it’s a win in the short term and the long term or so at a logical level, they’re trying to get only experienced people. It doesn’t make any sense. So they agree with the logic. They still can’t do it. Right? So that what that means is the need to deliver and look good in delivery, overpowers the logic and overpowers, uh, what it takes to do right by, by the people. No, not every group was this way. Um, but several were, and we realized that it’s actually a structural issue.
Yeah. And here’s the thing is we were given the power to cast the people whose responsibility was to deliver. They didn’t own the careers of the people. They own the delivery of the film. So what we did was we gave more power to the department heads so they were the ones that did the casting. Okay. And by giving them more power, first of all, I felt better they had greater responsibility. And now the people knew who it was, who was taking care of their careers and the departments that didn’t have the problem were the ones where in fact, the leaders, the departments had more.
So it was a structural, but I have to say it took a while to figure this out. Then we were looking and we were trying. And when it did, it just took a while to figure out, oh, okay. This is a structure once you figure out who owns what. Because everybody wants to believe somebody is looking out for them.
Katelin Holloway: How was that instituting a change on that scale? Did you find that it was simple because people wanted it to all of your points or did you find that it was something that had to kind of evolve over time?
Ed Catmull: Well, once we understood it, it sort of like hit us like a thunderbolt and, two of the people who really helped as we clarified this, uh, was Catherine Sarafian and Tom Porter and, um, what they needed to do, what they did was to go out and socialize it. And the irony was the people who were most resistant to it were the associate producers who were the ones that had the unpleasant job of trying to wrestle with each other over the casting process. So they were trying to hang on to the worst part of their job.
Katelin Holloway: Right.
Ed Catmull: It’d become almost built into them that part of their responsibility. And it’s part of their self-definition was to handle this tough task.
Katelin Holloway: Right.
Ed Catmull: Then they realized it worked better and they didn’t have this nasty part of their job.
So saying the words isn’t enough or it’s just, it’s just hard to look at why something works, why it doesn’t work.
Katelin Holloway: Something that you talk about a lot in the book that is referenced across the, the tech industry is about feedback and Pixar’s approach to feedback. So, in any company, feedback is essential to success. and you have implemented, you and the leadership team at Pixar over the years have implemented several different feedback methods.
It started first though as far as we all know, uh, with the Braintrust. Can you explain to everyone a little bit about what that was and maybe how it’s evolved over time?
Ed Catmull: Well, when we made our first film, which is Toy Story, we had an outside force who could hit us over the head with a two by four, and this was the, uh, the president at the time of Disney animation, Tom Schumacher. And the one thing that I’ve learned over all the years is for every project, occasionally you need the four by four to bring reality in. Just as right now, COVID is our four by four on a whole number of different fronts.
But in general it’s true. It’s like, you just need that once in a while. And for the people working on the project, they lose objectivity. They’ve got something in their head about what they’re doing, and if it’s not quite right they’re, they’re trying to adjust what’s in their head. When sometimes what’s in their head needs to be sort of smashed to pieces and then reassembled. This is a difficult process to go through.
But at the same time, Pixar was starting to become more and more successful. And and at that time, Disney was struggling in terms of its success and realized that at some point the effectiveness of Tom would actually be diminished because of that. So the first time the Braintrust was put together, which is consisted of six people, it was to provide the feedback to each other.
The truth is that was only working for a while because they’re all together all the time. So you actually don’t have the external objectivity. The Braintrust was actually working remarkably well and evolved over time. So initially it was eight people. And then as we made some more movies, we added people and it evolved into something which was in fact, not a group of people. It was the way we ran certain meetings, not every meeting, but a certain set of meetings.
And then they consisted of the Braintrust meetings, where those meetings that took place after the screening of a, of a film when we were making it. And it was very important that the safety be a critical part of this meeting because the director of the leadership team of the film is presenting something to their peers and they know that what they’re presenting is flawed. So they come in in a vulnerable state. Okay. Since they’re vulnerable, you don’t want to make them feel more defensive if you can making sure they’re not defensive, what you’re doing is you’re making it easier for them to listen.
So that’s the state that you want. We have some rules around it. One of them is basically it’s a peer to peer meeting, which means you have to think about the dynamics of a group that comes together. And as you know, in any group, there’s a hierarchy. There are people with power regardless of whatever their official position is, there are people with power and there are those who feel like they’re new and they don’t have a lot of power.
So how do you address the power dynamics in a room? So one of the rules is that the powerful people in the room are supposed to shut the hell up for the first 10 to 15 minutes. Right. And the reason is that a powerful person if they start off by speaking set the tone of the room and that a lot of people cannot help but respond to the tone that was set by those people.
And another rule is that of giving and listening to honest notes. Now the question is, does this always work? And the answer is usually it does, which is indicated by the quality of the films, but sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it goes off the rails.
And it goes off the rail for a variety of reasons. One of them is that people do defer to authority. I could just sort of build into human nature to do that. Um, and there are people who are, who don’t want to offend somebody else so they, you know, they won’t say what they think, uh, or there are people who are trying to impress others or they don’t want to offend other people. So you’ve got these human dynamics going on in a room and they can reach a certain point where they actually make it so you don’t have an effective room. So that does happen.
Katelin Holloway: Yeah.
Ed Catmull: On the other hand, there are times when magic happens and by magic, I mean the ego has left the room, the ideas come and go without people becoming attached to them. And that’s the critical point is you say something, it might work, it might not work. And if it doesn’t work, you’re not attached to it. It’s not a personal thing. Like, Oh, I had an idea and they rejected it. If you think that way, then you’re attached to your idea.
Another thing that Ed suggests are multi-day offsites — even if they’re virtual nowadays.
I learned how important these were and it’s one page that I very lovingly and graciously ripped out of the Pixar playbook.
It’s something that I highly encourage people to do. I think it’s really important to change your environment AND change the dynamic. It helps creativity flow, your team is firing on all cylinders, and everyone is equally as engaged with what the potential or what the future may be.
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Katelin Holloway: As a manager, you talk often, uh, in, in the book and, and elsewhere about fostering this positive understanding of failure.
Why is this so important to you?
Ed Catmull: We’re all experienced with failure in our life. And as I mentioned earlier, there are really two different meanings to failure, but one of them means that you screwed up or he didn’t work hard, but, but also in life, companies fail, governments, fail, bridges, fail our relationships, fail, and in business and politics failure is used as a bludgeon with which to beat opponents. So there’s a palpable aura of danger around failure. The second meeting, which is something that we all have all understood and experienced that we have learned from failures. All of us can say we went through a failure and we learned, and we became better because of it.
It is almost impossible for people to differentiate those two different meanings of failure. Right? It is absolutely a loaded term. It’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to be careful about the use of the word because of people’s inability to differentiate those two different meanings. The other thing to know is that failure is asymmetric with respect to time.
So even though we know that we learn from failure, we don’t have the luxury of calling something an educational failure until after it happens, right?
Katelin Holloway: Right.
Ed Catmull: Because there’s sometimes failures actually aren’t education at all. They’re just, you know, terrible things in our lives. It’s, it’s backward-looking at, it might be educational looking forward, it can be still just as scary cause we still don’t know which of the two that is going to be.
Katelin Holloway: Now if you wouldn’t mind, I usually do something called a lightning round where I ask you a few questions, in this case, four, uh, very quickly, and you do your best to not think too hard, answer them quickly. And then, uh, and then I. Don’t judge you either way. It’s very exciting. Would you be willing to participate with me?
Ed Catmull: I’m willing.
Katelin Holloway: Thank you. These are very deep, hard hitting questions. I promise you. So with that, let’s go into the lightning round.
Number one is a hotdog a sandwich?
Ed Catmull: Both.
Katelin Holloway: Oh, I’ve never gotten that answer before. How exciting.
Two, not counting Toy Story. What is your favorite Pixar movie?
Ed Catmull: Well, normally, cause I’m asked that question a lot. Then what I say is, well, it’s sort of like saying what’s your favorite child? Which is, I recognize it’s sorta like the cheap answer. Uh, the real answer though, because I was there while they were being made, the stories of the making, the making it a film actually is what I remember more than the film itself. And therefore it makes it more complex. I then default and go back to the cheesy answer.
But I don’t have a simple answer largely because, not every film, but there were probably like six or seven where the lessons learned and the meaning for me was actually extremely important. So I have several favorites for those quite distinct reasons.
Katelin Holloway: Makes sense. Okay, the next one should be easier. Company culture — family or sports team?
Ed Catmull: Uh, I, again, I say both. Actually, there’s a really good anecdote regarding that, but it’s, it’s not, it’s not very lightning.
Katelin Holloway: That’s Hey, hit us. We can take it.
Ed Catmull: Oh, it has to do with the thing called the peer pirates, which I know you don’t know what that is because I haven’t written about it yet. But in preparation, uh, Jim Morrison and I met with every single department. He met with 15 and I met with 15 as we’re going through all the issues that they had.
There was one department, which consisted of some of our very best technical people in this department. And they had prepared a list for me of their issues and concerns about the company and their department. And they, their list was actually longer than any other lists. And these meetings all took an hour, except in their case, we couldn’t get through the list in the hour.
So I said, this is really important. I want to go through the whole thing. Let’s reschedule. So I rescheduled, but due to the scheduling, I couldn’t get the rescheduled meeting with them until the very end so they were the last department that I met with. So they started off about six or seven people in the room. It wasn’t the whole department, it was representatives from the department. So one was speaking for them and he started off by saying, we’ve been thinking about it and what we want to do is withdraw our entire list. It is our responsibility to go out and figure out how to solve the problems in the relations that we have with others.
Wow. So this is pretty cool. And then he said to me, do you like sports? Okay. I didn’t see this one coming either. Although at this point I got sort of a little clue where this is going. And I said, yes I do I’m a season ticket holder to the San Francisco Giants. And I said, in fact, in one of those games, it was the playoffs series, I think for the 2012 world series. In the playoffs you can’t call a game because again you have to redo it another night, but you have to play all the way through, unlike the regular-season games.
And what made this playoff series important was that the Giants were down three games to zero. Then they came back and won the next three games. So this is very exciting. So on the seventh game, I was there. We get, and this is in the evening, so we get into this game about the eighth inning. And the fact is the Giants are actually comfortably ahead, at this point the crowd is crazy, but it starts to rain. The heavens opened up. It’s the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen in San Francisco.
It’s dumping. The lights are on, so everything is lit up and at that point the umpires get together and that decided whether or not to postpone the game, in which case it takes another night, but they’ve got the world series coming up so they decide to play through the rain. The Giant’s win everybody’s going completely crazy and then I said the, the interesting thing about that team went on to win the world series was there were no superstars.
So the guy said, he said, exactly. That’s our point. There were no superstars. And I said, we as a group cause they’re so incredibly good. Technically we’re considered to be the superstars in the studio and we don’t think that’s right.
And then he said, incidentally, I was at that game too.
Katelin Holloway: Ed, you take the cake. You are, you are the least lightning round person I’ve I’ve ever had a lightning round with, but that was phenomenal. You are not only very good at storytelling, you were good at sharing. Really important lessons. I mean, I think that if, if there’s anything we can take away from this, it’s not that a hot dog is, is both a sandwich and not a sandwich, but it’s that there are no superstars.
So just Ed, thank you. This has been such an incredible opportunity to reconnect and to hear firsthand some of your experiences. So thank you so much for sharing with us today. I’m so very grateful.
Ed Catmull: Well, it’s been my pleasure to talk with you. I really enjoyed this.
Katelin Holloway VO:
And to you, the listener! Thanks so much for joining me on this week’s episode of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I’m your host, Katelin Holloway.
This episode was produced by Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert [AH-liza], and Samantha Gattsek [GATT-sic]. Special thanks to Annette Cardwell. Learn more about how Lattice can help your business stay people focused at Lattice DOT com or find us on Twitter @LatticeHQ. Don’t forget to subscribe to All Hands, wherever you get your podcasts.
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