Being fearless: a Pixar story
As a self-confessed (and proud) Disney fanatic, when it was suggested that I should write a blog about what organisations can learn culturally from Pixar – and the comments of its co-founder Ed Catmull on the creative culture he has sought to foster – I jumped at the opportunity.
For those non-animation fans reading, please don’t click away; this is going to be more about finding the right culture for you, than about finding Nemo (although I can’t promise that I won’t add in the odd Pixar reference throughout).
Fear of failure
In an interview with 97th Floor1, Catmull discusses the importance of relearning the definition of failure, by moving away from those associations we have drilled into us from a young age. To paraphrase: If you fail a test at school, it’s considered bad; you didn’t work hard enough, and in order to progress you have to retake it, likely in the exact same way as before. Failure is framed as a waste of time, of potential, as a poor-learning opportunity. But it shouldn’t have to be.
Organisationally, a fear of failure results in a fear of risk, of the new and innovative, and is often symptomatic of a culture of blame or one lacking in trust. There’s a better way.
“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks.
It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.”
In that quote, Catmull perfectly captures the role of a manager in creating a secure environment which not just accepts but encourages failure as a recognition of growth and progression to a better end result.
In fact, Pixar’s own history of creating brilliance, is very much one of trial and error, iteration, and finding success through failure and risk. None of its stable of celebrated films where masterpieces from day one.
To quote Mike Sundy, another Pixar employee, “Pixar doesn’t make films better than anyone else. They just make them over and over until they get them right.”3
This isn’t just a lesson for the creative industry, nor is it just for the new starters or junior colleagues. In ever-more demanding marketplaces, with increasing pressures from external contexts, so-called positive error culture – having a constructive approach that accepts the risk of errors in order to promote experiments and innovation that further progress – is becoming increasingly recognised as paving a route to business success.
It’s not about making more mistakes than your counterparts, it is about how you respond to them. When we prepare for the inevitability of mistakes within a process, and create a safe work environment where we can share and celebrate our learnings from them, studies have proven that there is not only a direct link to organisational performance4, but a reduction in required rework.5
In other words, some ideas are going fail. The difference is what you do with those failures. How you learn from them, iterate, and make something lightyears better than you’d initially imagined.
A culture where we can celebrate and learn from our failures is one where we can communicate honestly and with transparency, question the status quo, encourage ideas and input from the quietest voices in the room, remove the phobia of a ‘bad idea’, and move from “why?” to “why not?”.
I’ll end with one final Pixar quote from 2012’s Brave, “Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.” So, let’s be fearless.
To talk about how we can help you create a positive working culture that gives all of your people a voice, embraces a diversity of ideas, and isn’t afraid to aim high (or just to chat about Pixar films), drop me a line at: Rae.Blackmore@CorporateCulture.co.uk or 0845 607 0000.