Ed Catmull, Pixar: Keep Your Crises Small | Summary and Q&A

July 28, 2009
Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Ed Catmull, Pixar: Keep Your Crises Small

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In this video, the speaker discusses the problems and challenges faced by successful companies and the importance of good ideas and good people. He shares examples of companies that failed due to poor decision-making and losing their competitive edge. The speaker also talks about the importance of communication, culture, and continuous improvement in sustaining success. He emphasizes the need for constant assessment and deep analysis to identify and address problems. The video offers insights into the creative and production processes at Pixar Animation Studios and their approach to storytelling.

Questions & Answers

Q: Why do successful companies fail?

Successful companies can fail due to a variety of reasons, such as poor decision-making, ignoring obvious problems, complacency, and failure to adapt to changing markets. In the case of Silicon Graphics, they made serious mistakes like acquiring another company that didn't align with their goals and launching a product that wasn't successful. They let their success blind them to the problems they were facing, which ultimately led to their downfall. It is important for companies to constantly assess their performance and be willing to make necessary changes to remain competitive.

Q: Why did the speaker start with the example of Silicon Graphics and SGI?

The speaker chose to highlight the case of Silicon Graphics and SGI because it exemplifies the situation where successful companies fail. Both companies were leaders in their industry and had a wealth of knowledge and expertise. However, they made critical mistakes that caused them to lose their competitive edge. By examining their failures, the speaker wants to emphasize the importance of being aware of and addressing problems even when a company appears to be successful.

Q: What was the struggle that the speaker's company faced?

The speaker's company, Pixar Animation Studios, faced various challenges and struggles in its early years. They had to overcome the difficulties of starting a company and figuring out how to make it work. They had to compete against established companies and establish themselves in the industry. They also faced internal challenges such as creating a culture that fostered collaboration between artists and technical staff, and maintaining communication and trust within the organization.

Q: What did the speaker learn from the struggles faced by his company?

The speaker learned the importance of learning from past mistakes and addressing problems proactively. He realized that success can hide problems and that it is crucial to dig deeper and not become complacent. He also learned the importance of communication, collaboration, and maintaining a culture of trust within the organization. The speaker emphasizes the need for constant assessment, deep analysis, and continuous improvement to sustain success.

Q: How did the speaker address the problem of communication within his company?

The speaker recognized that the existing hierarchical structure and communication channels were hindering effective communication within the company. He realized that communication should not be confined to hierarchical boundaries and should be open between anyone in the organization. The speaker implemented an open-door policy, encouraging everyone to freely communicate and share their ideas and concerns. This created a culture where communication could happen between anyone at any time, fostering collaboration and problem-solving.

Q: How did the speaker approach the review process in creating films at Pixar?

The speaker talked about the importance of constant review and iteration in the film-making process at Pixar. They adopted a unique review process that involved reviewing the material every day, even when it was incomplete. This counterintuitive approach allowed for more creative freedom and helped overcome embarrassment and fear of judgment. It also ensured that the final product was complete and met the highest standards.

Q: How did the speaker address the issue of the production managers feeling like second-class citizens?

The production managers at Pixar felt undervalued and that they were getting in the way of the creative process. This led to discontent within the organization. The speaker and the management team realized the importance of recognizing the value that production managers brought to the table and resolving the issue. They focused on creating a culture where everyone's contributions were valued, regardless of their role or position. They made efforts to include production managers in decision-making processes and ensure that their voices were heard.

Q: What is the difference between finding good ideas and finding good people?

The speaker highlights that finding good people and fostering a collaborative and effective team is more important than finding good ideas. While good ideas are essential, they are a product of the collective efforts and collaboration of talented individuals. Good people can take a mediocre idea and turn it into something great, while a great idea can be ruined by a mediocre team. The speaker emphasizes the need for a team that works well together and supports each other to succeed in bringing ideas to fruition.

Q: How did the speaker measure progress and success within the company?

The speaker highlighted the importance of measuring progress and success in a way that goes beyond financial metrics or product performance. At Pixar, the focus is on measuring the effectiveness of teams and how well they work together. The speaker mentions using postmortems after each project to assess and analyze the process and gather insights. The goal is to determine what worked well and what could be improved, rather than assigning blame or pointing out failures. The emphasis is on continuous learning, improvement, and fostering a culture of openness and trust.

Q: How did the speaker approach the issue of copying and originality?

The speaker emphasized the importance of originality and not repeating oneself in the creative process. He mentioned that many companies and studios tend to copy successful ideas or products rather than focus on creating something new and unique. He stated that the focus at Pixar is on creating original products and being innovative. The speaker believes that copying is shallow and that true success comes from fixing the problems and creating something that addresses the needs of the audience better than previous attempts.

Q: How did the speaker address the issue of complacency and the need for continuous improvement?

The speaker emphasized the need to constantly assess and dive deeper into the problems within an organization. He highlighted the dangers of success masking underlying issues and leading to complacency. At Pixar, they have a culture of continuous improvement and are always looking for ways to dig deeper and find the hard truths. Postmortems and deep analysis are part of their process to identify areas of improvement and make necessary changes. The speaker believes that organizations are inherently unstable and need constant attention and effort to sustain success.


The speaker shares valuable insights from his experience at Pixar Animation Studios on the challenges and lessons learned in sustaining success. He highlights the importance of continually assessing and addressing problems within organizations, even in the face of success. The speaker emphasizes the need to have good people who can work well together and foster a culture of trust and collaboration. Additionally, he points out the significance of originality and the continuous pursuit of improvement and innovation. Overall, the key takeaways from the video include the importance of constant assessment, deep analysis, effective communication, and a culture of continuous improvement in driving long-term success.

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