Stories of great teams: Part 4: Pixar

Most of us know Pixar Animation as the world leader in producing animation movies, but lesser known are the stories of exemplary leadership and team work that brought about the success of the company. In his excellent work “Superteams”, noted author Khoi Tu documents the initial days of Pixar Animation when the company was struggling to stay afloat in spite of having some of the best minds in the animation industry. No story about Pixar is complete without mentioning the core leadership team of Pixar from its initial days – 3 stalwarts of the industry – Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter. These were the 3 leaders who led Pixar in times of hardship and transformed the struggling company into an animation powerhouse.

One of the biggest turning points in Pixar’s journey was in 1993 during the production of Toy Story (produced by Disney) which went on to become the biggest hit of the animation industry and catapulted Pixar to the top of heap in the animation world. However in 1993, midway during the production of Toy Story, the situation was very grim – after reviewing the work done so far, the general feeling in both Disney and Pixar camps was that the movie was headed nowhere. Disney was ready to pull the plug and halt production of the movie, when Lasseter (head of animation) convinced them to grant a few weeks extension to turn around the situation. The rest, as they say is history.

pixar - toy story

Source: Pixar
The new Toy Story went on to become the biggest hit the animation industry had seen – however more importantly, the crisis brought out the best in the Pixar team – struggling for their very existence, they started intuitively using and practicing excellent team work skills which they incorporated later into the company’s very DNA. What are some of the key lessons from Pixar’s turnaround?

  1. Individual Brilliance – Michael Jordan is reported to have once remarked “There is no I in team, but there is in Win!” The core leadership team of Pixar is a case in point – brilliant, innovative minds who worked towards a common purpose. With great talent and brilliance came big egos and friction too as in any other team, but the 3 men shared a common belief that animation technology would revolutionize the movie industry. It was not without casualties however – one of the original 4 leadership team members, Alvy Ray Smith had multiple disagreements with Steve Jobs and eventually left Pixar.Steve Jobs, Alvy Ray Smith, Edwin CatmullSource: Flickr
    The remaining 3 core members, fed off each other’s strengths – Steve Jobs with his eye for spotting the big opportunity and acting quickly, Ed Catmull’s engineering brilliance and Lasseter’s artistic talents were also instrumental in ensuring that the company hired the best people in their respective fields and never compromised on the quality of personnel.
  2. Ambitious Shared Visionpixar-steve jobsSource: Flickr
    All the 3 leaders were united in their belief that animation technology could bring magic to the way movies were produced and set about proving it to the world. The determination and belief of the leaders were infectious, the Pixar team is known to have set extremely audacious targets for themselves in every aspect of their work– some of which were unheard of in the animation industry. In the crisis of 1993, the belief in the shared vision was one of the major factors in helping the company pass through the tumultuous period. While facilitating visioning workshops for leadership teams, we have seen the same passion for a shared vision in all the leaders that we have been fortunate to work with. Catmull and Lasseter recently paid tribute to Jobs’ role in a public statement issued condoling his passing – an excerpt here– Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA.”
  3. Accountability pixar waySource: Pixar
    The crisis literally melted barriers within the team like nothing else could. The Pixar team which was known to dream big and measure themselves against high standards of excellence took accountability to a new level for emerging stronger from the crisis. They started sharing ideas quickly without holding back and were brutally honest with each other in sharing feedback too. The high standards that each individual set for his/her work slowly became part of the “Pixar Way”. They were quick to take feedback, make decisions on stopping or going ahead with a particular design – the very nature of the crisis was such that without such behaviors, the company might have ceased to exist.
  4. Peer Culture –pixar cultureSource: Pixar
    Certain elements in the team’s functioning became ingrained in the very culture of the company and has shaped the way it functioned post the crisis as well. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, Ed Catmull points to a strong peer culture as a crucial ingredient in Pixar’s success. Tremendous amount of leeway was given to creative people in making crucial decisions regarding animation work, and they responded by putting in more than 100% into every project they worked on.

Open communication still continues to be one of the hallmarks of Pixar’s culture, where anyone who faces a problem related to their work has complete freedom in walking up to anyone else in the organization who they think can help, irrespective of their seniority or job profile. The culture also encouraged risk taking and in ensuring all ideas were heard. Catmull sums it up best when he says “Pixar’s customers expect to see something new every time. That’s downright scary. But if Pixar’s executives aren’t always a little scared, they’re not doing their jobs.”

 Are there stories of other great teams which have inspired you? Join the conversation….

Check out our other parts of “Stories of Great Teams”:

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