Pixar’s Foundations for Collaboration


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Randy Nelson knows something about how to build collaborative, innovative cultures.  Although currently the Head of Artistic Development and Training at DreamWorks Animation, two years ago when he did this piece, he was the Dean of Pixar University.  For twelve years, Randy was responsible designing curriculum and delivering classes and programs to continuously increase the skill and collaborative ability of Pixar’s mixed technical, artistic and management staff.

Pixar’s business model differs significantly from the standard Hollywood model in which there is a production organization that is set up in an ad hoc way for each film.  Pixar is an organization with regular, full-time employees that has sought to shift the center of focus from the ideas to the people who create the ideas.  Central to this strategy is Pixar University, a cross between an art and film academy that seeks to develop the skills of the employees, the learning curve of the organization and the collaborative spirit of the culture.

So, for those of you interested in improving the collaboration environment of your organizations or project teams, here are a few takeaways:

  • Like a good improvisational actor, accept every offer to collaborate.
  • Make your partners look good.  It’s not about judgment or saying “This is pretty good. How can I make it better?”  It’s about saying “Here’s where I’m starting. What can I do with this?”
  • Focus on error recovery, not failure avoidance.  It’s about resiliency, adaptability and the ability to make something from failure.
  • Be interested, not interesting.  Be a great listener who amplifies the person talking.  Seek to know what others want to know.
  • Usecommunication as an opportunity for translation. If you just emit “techie speak,” nobody really hears you. The responsibility for translation gets pushed to the receiving end of the conversation, and as a result, gets garbled. Do the translation at the sending end so that it doesn’t have to be done at the receiving end and the listener can say, “I understand.”
  • See collaboration as amplification.  This means connecting a group of individuals that are interested in each other, that bring separate depth to the problem and that bring a breadth that gives them interest in the entire solution.  This combination it allows them to communicate in ways that promote understanding and add to overall solutions.

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