Ed Catmull: Inside the Braintrust | Summary and Q&A

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May 5, 2014
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Stanford eCorner
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Ed Catmull: Inside the Braintrust

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Summary:

In this video, the speaker discusses the concept of the "brain trust" at Pixar and how it has contributed to their success. The brain trust is a group of individuals who give feedback and notes on films, but without any authority to tell the director what to do. This lack of authority creates a non-defensive and collaborative environment where honest and constructive feedback can be exchanged. The speaker also talks about how they have applied the principles of the brain trust to other groups within their organization and the importance of examining the dynamics of a room rather than just focusing on the ideas being discussed. Additionally, the speaker shares their experience of turning around Disney Animation and the impact of trust and applying principles in achieving success.

Questions & Answers:

Q: How did the brain trust at Pixar come about?

The brain trust at Pixar came about accidentally when the director and four focused and passionate individuals had intense discussions about the films they were working on. Their successful collaboration led to the addition of more people to this group, which eventually became known as the brain trust.

Q: What sets the brain trust apart from other groups?

One key factor that sets the brain trust apart is that it has no authority to tell the director what to do. This lack of authority creates a non-defensive environment where the director feels comfortable and open to feedback, knowing that the group cannot undermine them. This dynamic fosters collaboration and effective problem-solving.

Q: Why didn't applying the principles of the brain trust work as well with other groups within Pixar?

Applying the principles of the brain trust to other groups within Pixar didn't work as well because those groups lacked the same level of trust and collaborative dynamics. The brain trust's success is not just about smart people discussing ideas, but rather about the specific dynamics that have been cultivated within the group.

Q: What are some obstacles to candor and open feedback in most organizations?

Many individuals hold back from expressing their true thoughts and opinions due to personal and emotional reasons. They may fear embarrassing themselves or others, feeling the need to look good in front of others, or even wanting to grandstand. These reasons often go unacknowledged, but they hinder honest and open communication.

Q: What approach did the managers take when issues arose within the brain trust?

Instead of focusing solely on examining the ideas being discussed, the managers observed the dynamics of the room to determine if the group members were genuinely expressing their thoughts. The belief was that if the dynamics were working well, the group would find solutions to problems on their own.

Q: How has the brain trust contributed to the remarkable work done at Pixar?

The brain trust, as a group of individuals who freely express their thoughts and collaborate without authority, has contributed to the remarkable body of work produced at Pixar. Though there are occasional failures and collapses, the majority of the time the brain trust has resulted in outstanding achievements.

Q: Can the principles of the brain trust be applied in other organizations outside of Pixar?

The principles and practices of the brain trust can theoretically be applied to other organizations. However, it may require building trust, allowing for constructive conflicts, and going through failures together in order to create an environment conducive to open and honest feedback.

Q: How did the speaker apply the principles of the brain trust to turn around Disney Animation?

When the speaker and John were placed in charge of Disney Animation, they made the decision to keep Pixar and Disney Animation separate entities. They worked with the demoralized and failing Disney Animation team, teaching them the principles and philosophy behind the brain trust. It took time to earn trust, but eventually, the team began to apply the principles, resulting in critical and commercial successes.

Q: What were the outcomes of implementing the principles of the brain trust at Disney Animation?

Since the implementation of the brain trust principles at Disney Animation, they have produced six critically acclaimed films. The team's mindset and behavior have changed, allowing them to be honest and candid with each other, think differently about problems and failures, and ultimately achieve commercial success with films like Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, and Frozen.

Q: How did keeping Pixar and Disney Animation separate help in their respective turnarounds?

By keeping Pixar and Disney Animation separate, no one could claim that either studio rescued the other or that Disney bailed out Pixar. This allowed both studios to evolve with different personalities and mindsets. While they are very different from each other, they are both extraordinary groups that have achieved success in their own right.

Takeaways:

The brain trust concept, as implemented at Pixar, has proven to be instrumental in their success. By fostering an environment of trust, collaboration, and constructive feedback, the brain trust enables the production of remarkable work. The principles of the brain trust can potentially be applied to other organizations, but it requires building trust, allowing for genuine conflict, and learning from failures together. Additionally, the speaker's experience in turning around Disney Animation demonstrates the power of trust, principles, and evolving group dynamics in achieving significant improvements and commercial success.

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