Thursday, November 4, 2010

Animated Leadership

According to Florida & Goodnight (2005), “The creative economy is here to stay, and companies that figure out how to manage for creativity will have a crucial advantage in the ever increasing competition for global talent.” With this is mind, I wanted to examine the importance of creative leadership in the film production industry. As a continually innovative and profitable organization, Pixar Animation Studios has successfully leveraged the creative abilities of its employees to achieve ongoing success. It seems that much of Pixar’s success can be attributed to the unique leadership approach of Edwin Catmull, President and Co-Founder of Pixar Animation Studios. In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Mr. Catmull described his perspective on building a sustainable creative organization.
“While I’m not foolish enough to predict that we will never have a flop, I don’t think our success is largely luck. Rather, I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible.”

With the founding of Pixar in 1986, Mr. Catmull aimed to better understand what worked and what didn’t work in the feature-film industry in order to develop a vision for what a successful animation studio should look like. From looking at the leadership styles at other studios, his conclusion was that most overlooked the need for true creative freedom during the production design process. His approach for the newly formed Pixar studios was to promote a ‘creative culture’ throughout all levels of the organization. The creative culture, according to Catmull, “…empowers the production designers…by giving them control over every stage of idea development,” (Catmull, 2008).
Along with this greater flexibility came additional responsibilities for employees. Pixar’s creative culture established an expectation that people throughout the organization would support one another in producing work of the highest quality. Rather than relying heavily on a ridged hierarchy, Catmull believes that feedback from peers is a more meaningful way to learn from mistakes and foster innovation. This position seems to align with Amabile’s (1998) discussion of freedom and creativity. In particular, Amabile states that, “Autonomy around process fosters creativity because giving people freedom in how they approach their work heightens their intrinsic motivation and sense of ownership.”
It’s easy to see that Pixar designers are committed to the results of their work, and most would agree that they don’t settle for mediocrity. According to Catmull, the creative culture has been key to Pixar’s tremendous performance during the last 15 years. Beginning with the release of “Toy Story” in 1995, 11 full-length animated films have gone on to gross a total of more than $2.8 billion dollars in the U.S. (Box Office Data 2010).
In addition to his focus on creativity, it seems that Edwin Catmull’s technical knowledge and personal traits allow him to be a particularly effective leader in the film industry. In reviewing Pixar’s remarkable success in the past 24 years, I noticed a recurrent theme of strong determination and on the part of Catmull, which, because of his collaborative style, permeates throughout the organization to all employees. His early vision was to be able to someday create and market the world’s first full-length computer animated feature film. However, at the time of Pixar’s founding, this vision seemed unlikely, based in part on the limitations of computer graphics software available at the time. Mr. Catmull decided to confront a significant obstacle to future innovation by leading the effort at Pixar to develop texture mapping software which allows for high-resolution, realistic graphics. The RenderMan software program was successfully completed in 1989, and is now an industry standard for computer animation.
When Stogdill (1948) outlines some of the personal factors commonly associated with leadership, he describes ambition as working to provide energy to the organization. Specifically, Stogdill states that, “Ambition impels leaders to set hard, challenging goals for themselves and their organizations.” It seems that Mr. Catmull’s display of ambition early in Pixar’s history has laid the groundwork for continually setting the bar high with respect to quality. His employees know that he expects Pixar to generate solutions to difficult production challenges, in the same way that he tackled the software development issue in the late 1980’s. This reminds me of the concept of leading by doing.
As well as his understanding of internal organizational dynamics, I also get the sense that Mr. Catmull is keenly aware of the need to respond to the ever changing external environment to remain viable. When considering the inclusion of social themes, such as diversity, and environmental awareness in recent film releases, it seems that Mumford, et al., (2000) would suggest that Pixar is balancing stability with, “need for change to cope with shifts in the environment, technology, and available resources.” The studio knows what works for their traditional formula, but at the same time understands the need to remain current by addressing issues that are relevant to consumers.
Over the years, Pixar’s corporate objective has evolved to be what it is today – “to combine proprietary technology and world-class creative talent to develop computer animated feature films with memorable characters and heartwarming stories that appeal to audiences of all ages.” As Geneen (1998) explains, “The person who leads a company should realize that his people are really not working for him; they are working with him for themselves…they have their own need for self-fulfillment.” As a leader who supports creativity throughout the organization, Edwin Catmull encourages a sense of ownership and self-fulfillment by giving employees the freedom to generate unique solutions to common challenges. He has found a leadership formula that works well for the film industry, and it’s likely that this allows Pixar to continuously produce an excellent product, while attracting top industry talent.

Works Cited:

Box Office History for Disney-Pixar Movies http://www.the-

Catmull, E., “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” Harvard Business Review Sep. 2008.

Pixar Corporate Information – About Us.

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