Ideas from the book

  • Make sure your environment facilitates, and not hinders, the culture that you want to foster. If you want open communication oblivious to ranks and pecking order, a rectangular meeting table is a bad idea. So are name or place cards. The author changed the meeting room at Pixar to have a square table and had positions (name cards) mixed up so that executives were sitting next to front-line employees.

  • Communication structure should be independent of, and not mimic, organization structure. Anyone in the company should be able to talk to anyone else.
  • There is nothing like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed, to force rapid learning.
  • Dolphins use echolocation to determine the location of a school of fish. Similarly, sending out sharp impulses can be a way to size up your environment. Steve Jobs did this, sending out sharp, opinionated remarks and then watching out how others around him reacted. If someone responded passionately, presenting the right facts and arguments, he/she won Steve’s respect.
  • When control is the goal, it negatively affects other parts of your culture. Employees who work with control-focused people walk on eggshells – fear runs rampant.
  • Trust is the best tool for driving out fear. Be patient, authentic and consistent, the trust will come.
  • Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to develop the ability to recover from them. Assume that people have good intentions, and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen and let people fix them.
  • The hungry beast and the ugly baby – At a large, growing company, there is a ‘hungry beast’ in the form of requirements to deliver big. It forces an assembly-line structure and mode of functioning, and hampers creativity. New creative ideas are often like ugly babies, yet-to-be formed, needing protection from criticism and cynicism and yet to blossom into their potential. Managers or leaders must strike the right balance, else the hungry beast can kill the ugly babies. Note that each of these is not positive or negative in an absolute sense – the hungry beast enforces discipline, and brings the need to produce. The ugly baby leads to new creations, but left unchecked, it can be needy, demanding and unfruitful.
  • “Our job is to protect ugly babies from being judged too quickly.” Note that protecting the new and unformed is different from protected the established and entrenched (e.g. people holding onto arcane processes or old ways of doing things).
  • Mental image of balance – Most people perceive balance as a static, calm process, like a yogi sitting in meditation. In reality, balance is more of a dynamic response to rapidly changing environments, like a juggler. Think of a surfer catching a wave or a basketball player spinning around a defender – that is balance.
  • A manager of a creative enterprise must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions. Your goals can change as you learn new information, or are surprised by things that you thought you knew but did not. As long as your intentions are consistent, people will be OK with your goals changing.
  • Tactics for getting people to be open to change, when it is needed but dreaded – a producer at Pixar uses the following lines with his team – “This would be a big change if we were actually going to really do it, but just as a thought exercise, what if…”
  • Self-similarity in problems – just like a snowflake has self-similarity (smaller parts resemble the large flake), small problems are similar to and a manifestation of large problems. Don’t treat your big problems and small problems differently. Instead of approaching problems as “let me prioritize them from large to small, and put all efforts into solving the large one”, enable everyone to solve all problems. The key is to create a response structure that matches the problem structure.
  • Limits of perception – How much is it that we are able to see? Is there a Cassandra out there that we are failing to listen to?
  • The author spent a lot of time thinking about what issues he could be blind to, as a manager, and about why successful companies around failed when their problems seemed obvious in the making. The leaders of those companies were not attuned to the fact that there were problems that they could not see. 
  • “Making room in my head for the certainty that, like it or not, some problems will always be hidden from me has made me a better manager.”
  • “If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen, and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.”
  • New leaders/managers falsely assume that as their position changes, their access to information is unchanged. The author mentions how snarky behavior, grousing and rudeness – all disappeared from his view after he became manager.
  • Treat different viewpoints as additive, not competitive – (this is golden advice). The best way to size up a beautiful nature spot is to view it from different vantage points, and understand that none of them individually gives you the fullness of the sight.
  • When viewed from a single vantage point, a full picture of the dynamics of any group is elusive. The leader’s view is particularly obstructed by those who are skilled at figuring out what the leader wants.
  • Hindsight is not 20-20 – (golden advice again). Our view of the past is hardly any cleaner than our view of the future. Just keep in mind that your single vantage point is incomplete, and work with the assumption that a lot of the factors that affect your business and life will stay out of sight for you.
  • ‘Seeing’ is deceptive – only 40% of what we think we ‘see’ comes in through our eyes. The rest is made from memory or patterns that we recognize from past experience. This can be used to one’s advantage-  great animators carefully craft the movements that elicit an emotional response, convincing us that their characters have feelings, emotions and intentions.
  •  “Drawing the unchair” as a metaphor for increasing perceptivity – most people fail at drawing because they are too chained by presumptions of how things should look. Good drawing books start by breaking those presumptions (draw something upside, so you are not influenced by what you think you ‘see’ or perceptions of how that ‘thing’ should be or draw negative spaces, such as drawing everything that is not the chair).
  • Post-mortems are important
    • They help consolidate learnings from the project.
    • They teach others who weren’t present during the project.
    • They help fix up resentments so they don’t linger into the future.
    • Use the scheduled time to force reflection.
    • Raise questions that should be asked on the next project.
  • How to conduct post-mortems that work
    • Try things that help people open up – instead of feeling like they are better off not poking the bear when they can just move on to the next project.
    • Shake things up a little bit, so people don’t game the system. Try a mid-mortem for instance.
    • Mix the positive and negative – ask 5 things that people would do again and 5 things that they would change.
    • Keep track of data.
  • “You can’t manage what you can’t see” – this is a false maxim.
  • People swing to extremes of either having no interest in data or believing that facts of measurement alone should drive management. Both extremes are dangerous. Use data as only one of the ways to ‘see’.
  • Pixar University – Started as a single course, but the purpose of it was to send a signal about how important it is for each one of us to keep learning new things and be okay with starting afresh.
  • Positive visualizations – Most leaders at Pixar have developed visualizations or mental models that help them cope with uncertainty, chaos and the process of creating something entirely new. Imagining your problems as familiar pictures helps.
    • John Walker thinks of himself as balancing a pyramid on his fingertips, upside down. Don’t mess with what is happening at the broad top (his team), but keep the bottom tip balanced irrespective of it.
    • Brad Bird’s skiing metaphor – “when I adopted this positive attitude (of saying to myself that it is ok to crash, and scary turns at mountains are inevitable), I stopped crashing.”
    • “If you think, you stink” – while playing a guitar, let the music flow without thinking.
  • Adopt whatever mental models or visualizations that work for you, but be thoughtful of what problems the model is trying to solve. For example, ‘driving the train’ is a bad mental model for running a company (compared to a train) -it focuses on control and does nothing else. The real challenge is in laying the tracks.
  • Commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might. People will accept when you correct course.
  • The importance of mindfulness – In an experiment, meditators’ threshold for pain was much higher than those of non-meditators. Being in the present, helps be a better manager. If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes.

 

 Personal opinions

  • Picking good weekend TV for kids is essential – Many of the author’s stories (of the times at Pixar and earlier in this life) and central characters (the author himself, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, many others) at Pixar were inspired to get into animation because they grew up watching The World of Walt Disney as kids, admiring how Mr.Disney brought the latest technologies of the time to animation. The effect on the author was so huge that he devoted the first 20 years of his career to developing the first fully computer animated film.
  • How good you are is often tied to, and is a function of, goodness of your peers and goodness in your environment – The author was a graduate student in Ivan Sutherland’s lab at Utah. Ivan Sutherland is known as the father of computer graphics, and his labmates included Jim Clark (SGI, Netscape, Healtheon), Alan Kay (known for work in OO programming and windowing GUI interfaces, Apple chief scientist in 1985) and John Warnock (Adobe co-founder).
  • The road to success is unsexy and requires grit to get through boring work – the author took plaster models of his hand, as a graduate student, and manually drew 350 small and big triangles and polygons that covered his hand. Software exists to do this in seconds today, but during his time, the author’s work in creating a 3-D animated model of his hand was pioneering.
  • Great idea adopted at Pixar – mentoring programs that pair new managers with experienced ones.
  • Starting with a hypothetical future and working backwards is a great idea. For the famous ‘Notes Day’ at Pixar, managers often started with the hypothetical line of “It is 2017, both of this year’s films were completed in well under 18.5k person hours. What innovations helped these productions meet their budget goals? What are some specific things that we did differently?
  • Why is this book worth reading? 
    • Success with personal goals: The author persisted after his childhood goal of making a computer animated movie for ~20 years before finally doing it at Pixar.
    • Consistently successful leadership: The author discovered ways to foster creativity and lead to successful projects at Pixar – the studio has created 14 films so far, most of which were extremely profitable and scored Academy Awards. Only one film was ever shut.
    • Principles that have proven to work elsewhere: Disney Animation produced its first hit after 16 years, after the author and John Lasseter took charge of it. The culture and trajectory of Disney Animation has changed for the better, proving that the author’s learnings are applicable outside of Pixar.