Innovation lessons from Pixar: A conversation with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird

What does stimulating the creativity of animators have in common with developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs? A lot. Here is a brief excerpt from an article co-authored by Hayagreeva Rao, Robert Sutton, and Allen P. Webb during which they share a conversation with Brad Bird, Pixar’s two-time Oscar-winning director. It appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, sign up for email alerts, and/or obtain subscription information, please click here.

Source: Strategy Practice

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If there’s one thing successful innovators have shown over the years, it’s that great ideas come from unexpected places. Who could have predicted that bicycle mechanics would develop the airplane or that the US Department of Defense would give rise to a freewheeling communications platform like the Internet?

Senior executives looking for ideas about how to make their companies more innovative can also seek inspiration in surprising sources. Exhibit One: Brad Bird, Pixar’s two-time Oscar-winning director. Bird’s hands-on approach to fostering creativity among animators holds powerful lessons for any executive hoping to nurture innovation in teams and organizations.

Bird joined Pixar in 2000, when the company was riding high following its release of the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and the subsequent hits A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Concerned about complacency, senior executives Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter asked Bird, whose body of work included The Iron Giant and The Simpsons, to join the company and shake things up. The veteran of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and FOX delivered—winning Academy Awards (best animated feature) for two groundbreaking movies, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Ten days before Ratatouille won its Oscar, we sat down with Bird at the Emeryville, California, campus of Pixar, which is now a subsidiary of Disney. [Readers interested in the relationship between innovation, organization, and leadership may also wish to read several other recent Quarterly articles: Joanna Barsh, “Innovative management: A conversation with Gary Hamel and Lowell Bryan,”, November 2007; Lenny T. Mendonca and Robert Sutton, “Succeeding at open-source innovation: An interview with Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker,”, January 2008; and Joanna Barsh, Marla M. Capozi, and Jonathan Davidson, “Leadership and innovation,”, January 2008.] Bird discussed the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”—restless contributors with unconventional ideas. Although stimulating the creativity of animators might seem very different from developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs, Bird’s anecdotes should stir the imagination of innovation-minded executives in any industry.

The Quarterly: What attracted you to Pixar?

Brad Bird: One thing that was unbelievably different about this company was that they were worried about becoming complacent. When I came here, they had made three movies—Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2—that had all been big hits. I was coming off a film called The Iron Giant that was a highly regarded financial failure.

Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter said, in effect, “The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.” For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, “Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up”—when do you run into that?

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Hayagreeva Rao and Robert Sutton are both professors at Stanford University, where Rao is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business and Sutton is a professor of management science and engineering in the School of Engineering. Allen Webb is a member of The McKinsey Quarterly’s board of editors.

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