Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “How to Build a Creative Organization Without Any Authority”

October 01, 2014

Many great books on creativity and innovation have been written by professors and researchers, and I’ve read quite a few. The best book I’ve read by an actual CEO on how he personally developed a real-world creative organization is Ed Catmull’s recent work, “Creativity, Inc.”

Catmull, founder of animated movie industry leader Pixar begins his book with an entertaining story about how he dreamed of making the world’s first computer-animated movie. In 1986, he teamed up with John Lasseter, a Disney animator, and founded Pixar with financial backing from Steve Jobs. It took nine extremely challenging years for Catmull and Lasseter to create their first full-length animated movie, “Toy Story.”  The rest is history.

Although Catmull claims to be an “accidental CEO,” he has clearly thought deeply about how to build and sustain a creative organization and openly shares his philosophies in his book. Here, I’ll discuss one of the most critical elements of Pixar’s culture — its brain trust.

The genesis of Pixar’s brain trust

According to Catmull, five brilliant men developed “Toy Story.” Their manner of collaboration was so powerful that Catmull created and institutionalized the brain trust as a critical element of the development process for every future Pixar film.

So what makes a brain trust work? The brain trust must have two critical elements:

1)     All members of the brain trust must have a deep understanding of the customer experience — in Pixar’s case, the storytelling — and must have personally been through the creation process.

2)     The brain trust has no authority. This is critical, because it means the director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions from the brain trust. As a result, the team speaks more candidly and the director has no need to defend his decisions or actions.

Building up, not tearing down

Catmull realized that by giving the brain trust authority, it would have made the creative process competitive and inherently critical — almost like “a trip to the dentist,” he says. Without authority, however, there was no debate to be won. The brain trust only adds value by challenging and testing the director’s ideas by allowing the director to see things through other people’s eyes.

“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy,” Catmull says. “On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The brain trust is fueled by the idea that every suggestion is in service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.”

Interestingly, the key characteristics of Pixar’s brain trusts are very similar to the philosophies behind the Alliance of CEOs. Just like a brain trust brings value to the creative process, the Alliance enables CEOs to challenge assumptions, think deeply and generate fresh perspectives and ideas.

The brain trust was just one example used in “Creativity, Inc.” — there are many others. If you’re looking to build a more creative organization, Catmull’s book is a great place to start.