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For the last two decades, Pixar has produced some of the most creative and epic films of this era. But this is the result of a culture of creative collaboration built on ideas of being frank, taking chances, and failing forward. So, what can educators learn from Pixar as we design collaborative projects?

A Culture of Collaboration at Pixar

A few years ago, I read Creativity, Inc. and it changed the way I thought about creative collaboration. Written by Ed Catmull, the president and co-founder of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, the book explores the topics of innovation, creativity, and leadership by offering a behind-the-scenes view of the Pixar story.

I am naturally skeptical when people point to corporations as examples that schools should emulate. We are not making a product and we should not be governed by economic norms. However, I have always admired Pixar for the fact that they consistently craft amazing stories. The first fifteen minutes of Up! are some of the best cinema around. I’m not afraid to admit that it made me cry.

What strikes me, though, is how they have achieved such creative success with two leaders (Ed Catmull and Alvy Smith) who seem to be the opposite of most of the bold, brash CEOs. The focus in Pixar is toward democratic collaboration.

photo credit: Lucius Kwok

What can Pixar teach us about creative collaboration?

As I read this book, I was struck by the number of things Pixar can teach us about creative collaboration. Some of these are simple ideas, but they challenge popular conceptions about what creative work looks like:

  1. Creativity isn’t a solitary endeavor. We tend to think of lone creative types hashing out ideas by themselves. However, I am struck by the fact that the best creative ideas are often solved by entire teams. What I found fascinating about Pixar is the way they empower so many people to contribute. The structure is surprisingly non-hierarchical, from the meetings to the decision-making to the fact that nobody gets a special parking spot. This is an important reminder that the best creative projects are nearly always collaborative.
  2. Critical feedback doesn’t have to crush creativity. When trust and transparency are present, critical feedback can fuel creative thinking. If you check out the book, I’d highly recommend you read the section on the Brain Trust meetings. As Catmull puts it, “We believe that ideas – and thus, films – only become great when they are challenged and tested.” There’s a key idea here that collaborative groups should value candor. This was part of why I used the 20-minute peer feedback system in my classroom. I wanted students to understand that criticism isn’t the same as hating.  It’s actually a part of what happens when you truly trust each other enough to be vulnerable and share your work with one another.
  3. There is power in pivoting. Pixar began as a technology company that slowly pivoted into filmmaking. Their movies often take multiple shapes, with constant pivoting along the way. Typically, they have one foot on an idea, concept, or value, and then keep trying new things until it works. I loved seeing how movies like Monsters, Inc. evolved over the years of planning. This is important for students working on collaborative groups working on creative projects. They need to see that pivoting doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you are being flexible and willing to improve.
  4. Play matters. Pixar has built celebrations into their company culture. They throw parties and go on retreats. They encourage workers to cover their workspace with personal trinkets. But it runs much deeper. Some of their best breakthroughs have come from making Pixar short films, which are essentially sandbox spaces to test out new approaches and to allow a small team to learn a broader range of skills. It’s important to build play into creative collaboration. If you’re working on a long project, you will get tired. It will become a grind. But play allows you to find energy, reconnect with your group and ultimately hit creative breakthroughs.
  5. Trust the process. Although Pixar is incredibly flexible, they have structures and processes that allow creativity to happen. One quote that stuck out to me was, “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.” However, there are specific processes that help people through these darker parts in the journey. I think it’s important that we have processes and structures that encourage creativity.
  6. You can’t value risk-taking and unless you allow for mistakes. This theme popped up often but in a way that was much more meaningful than the typical “embrace your mistakes” mantras that you see on social media. It’s the idea of having a growth mindset and knowing that experimentation means mistakes will occur. This is such a sharp contrast to a story in the book where Steve Jobs fires an Apple employee in front of the entire company. By contrast, Catmull wanted Pixar’s employees to feel the freedom to make mistakes and grow as a result.
  7. Art and science are complimentary. This was one of the earliest themes. I’ve seen STEM folks who bemoan the A added in STEAM. However, I am struck by the fact that there is artistry in science and so much science in the art of storytelling. A similar thought is that you can create something innovative and timeless at the same time. So, as students engage in creativity, we need to explore how your collaborative processes honor both art and science.
  8. We need mental models to battle fear. Creativity is scary. I have had moments in creative work when I felt terrified. I worried about what people would think. I worried about entering the unknown without any assurance that I would create what I wanted to create. What I loved about this book is the reminder that the fear never goes away. If anything, it intensifies with success. There’s a section in this book where they explore the fear that the directors face and the mental models they use to make sense of everything. This is important for creative collaboration because an entire group can get stuck and grow risk-averse in their creativity.
  9. The goal of creative collaboration isn’t creativity. With Pixar, the goal is always storytelling and, I would argue, highly emotional myth-making. Creativity isn’t what drives the storytelling. Rather, storytelling drives the creativity. This, by the way, is why I rarely talk about creativity with students. I don’t assess it. I don’t place it on a rubric. I don’t tell students, “Go out and be creative.” Instead, I encourage groups to focus on the purpose and the audience and to feel the freedom to take creative risks.
  10. People are more important than ideas. There was a great quote here, “Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas . . . too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.” This has a few big implications for creative collaboration. First, it means trust and relationships are more important than the products we make. Second, it means we need to be okay to abandon ideas without taking things personally. Finally, it means our success in generating ideas does not define who we are as people. Ultimately, the success of a group isn’t the product they create so much as the way that they relate to one another.

I don’t believe that we should pattern schools after Pixar. Nor do I believe that every team, organization, or business could run on their model. However, the book is a great way to spark thoughts on the creative process in a way that is not prescriptive or systematic. If you love a great story that will also challenge your thinking, go buy it. Seriously. It’s an awesome book.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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