Pixar has produced fantastic movies like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monster Inc. What has made the company so successful? Is there any one thing we want to take away from their structure, culture or processes?
Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, reflects on what has made Pixar special in his book Creativity Inc. An important takeaway is to be skeptical of any one thing. A simple mantra like “Story is King” has a lot of truth to it, but Catmull warns that all these simple guidelines will send you astray almost as often as they keep you on track.
With that big, fat caveat in mind there is one thing Catmull invests a lot of effort in, and the more I think about it the more I feel it probably is the closest thing to a secret sauce Pixar has. The secret is: candor.
Candor, Honesty, and Discretion
First let’s get a distinction out on the table. The term candor is almost a synonym for honesty but there’s an important difference. Honesty is all wrapped up in ethical considerations; the opposite of honesty is dishonesty which no one supports. In contrast the opposite of candor is probably discretion. Discretion is a virtue but it’s a virtue that can derail knowledge based firms.
Discretion arises when you are a junior employee just learning the ropes and follow the advice of your leaders even if it seems wrong. Discretion is not saying something that might discourage someone who has put their heart and soul into a project. Discretion is not disagreeing with your boss in front of their boss.
Discretion is like soft padding wrapped around the hard edges of human life. It prevents the inevitable collisions from doing damage.
However discretion also means that we sacrifice good ideas in favour of maintaining civilization within our company. Thanks to discretion, good feedback, advice, and insights are constantly being suppressed because it is more important to keep things cordial.
Creating the conditions for candor
How can you create the conditions where people can speak up and share their ideas? How can you get them to speak up when it might hurt someone’s feelings? When they are not sure they are right? When they are the junior person in the room?
There is only one sure route to this and it is for the CEO to make it a priority and drive it through the business. You probably remember that W. Edwards Deming made a similar point about fear in the workplace. He didn’t say “don’t create fear” or “work to minimize fear”; he said “drive out fear.” Fear, like discretion, is the natural order of things. It will be there and it will keep coming back. The only way to have a workplace free of fear and full of candor is to constantly work on it.
This means two things in practice. One is clearly articulating candor as a value and communicating it ruthlessly. More important than that, however, is to constantly be on the lookout for problems the same way nuclear power operators look out for any hint that something might be going wrong. We want a high reliability organization (see Karl Weick’s Managing the Unexpected) that is highly reliable around candor. Time and again things will go wrong. Someone will get shut down. Someone will take offence. Someone will interpret a promotion as evidence that you have to ‘go along’ to ‘get along’. Every day, the leadership has to be steering the ship through the gale of forces that keep people from sharing their thoughts.
The big payoff
A firm like Pixar is stuffed full of bright, creative people. They overflow from the office like plush toys spilling out of a child’s closet. If you can engage the intelligence of all those people you can get fabulous results. Candor is a big tool for engaging that intelligence. That is what Pixar has done. As always, I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to explore putting these thoughts into practice.