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Pixar President Shares Management Philosophy in Santa Monica

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By Zina Markevicius Kinrade
Special to the Lookout

August 8, 2014 -- Good people are more important than good ideas, Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar and president of Disney Animation Studios told a crowd of some 250 gathered in Downtown Santa Monica Tuesday.

Catmull – who joined co-author Amy Wallace for a discussion of their new book, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House, 2014) at the Milken Institute -- chronicled his path to Pixar, and the pair shared Catmull’s respected management philosophy and tools.

Growing up in the 1950’s, Ed Catmull had two heroes: Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. He always found art and science to be closely connected and dreamed of becoming an animator. At the University of Utah, he studied physics and later joined the graduate program in computer science, a burgeoning field given wide berth by the school.

“I liked the idea of being at the forefront,” said Catmull. “It was like being at an Easter egg hunt and being at the front of the line, and they just cut the ribbon.”

Computer graphics appealed most, and he set a goal of producing an animated feature within ten years. It took 20 years to produce the first Toy Story film, but Catmull collected key management strategies along the way at the New York Institute of Technology and Lucasfilm.

When Steve Jobs bought the computer graphics division of George Lucas’ firm in 1986 to form Pixar, Catmull served as the first Chief Technology Officer. Nearly 20 years later, Disney acquired its animation rival, putting Catmull and John Lasseter in charge of both Disney Animation and Pixar, which the duo continues to operate as separate organizations. Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar and president of Disney Animation Studios

The 69-year-old spoke favorably of Disney, as well as his late colleague Steve Jobs, whom he described as evolving over time into a more empathetic person.

The most compelling part of the discussion was the author’s unconventional approach to management. He pays a surprising amount of attention to the human emotions of his team, such as how people are sensitive to criticism of their own work and hesitant to criticize others. The Pixar “Brain Trust,” he says, is a system of providing feedback to filmmakers in a safe, open environment.

“Directors always get lost in their own films,” Catmull said. By involving colleagues with no authority on those projects, the Brain Trust encourages filmmakers to drop their natural defensiveness and take in candid feedback.

In many ways, Catmull embraces the grey areas between extremes. Emotions are necessary for creativity, but too much emotion can derail a project, he says. Failure is good, but not too often.

Indeed, his co-author Amy Wallace pointed out that the “seductiveness of clarity” can prevent individuals or organizations from “staying in the mess of not knowing what’s next” and getting to the next truly great idea.

It is an interesting philosophy but challenging to apply when it is just another day at the office. His commitment to attracting great people is a clearer and compelling strategy.

“Give a great idea to mediocre people, and they’ll screw it up,” deadpanned Catmull.

On the other hand, great people will either improve a mediocre idea or create a better one to replace it, he argued. This suggests that hiring a smart person, for example, may be wiser than hiring an experienced one.

More than a third of the audience members identified themselves as first time visitors to the Milken Institute. Catmull clearly attracted a younger crowd, perhaps many of them aspiring animators and filmmakers.

The non-profit institute is located just down the block from the Third Street Promenade, and it regularly hosts authors for free, public discussions and book signings, often focused on leadership and economics. Past participants have included Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, and Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and upcoming events will feature General Wesley Clark and others.

For more information on community events at the Milken Insitute, visit www.milkeninstitute.org.


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