Pixar’s Braintrust — why it is important for a creative culture
Should people be honest? Almost everybody will say yes. People have to be honest. Otherwise, you encourage dishonesty. But once you put the question in a context, it will increase the number of answers to “probably not”. For example: “Should people be honest in a meeting in front of the management team?”. Here you would start thinking about your job, reputation, and “are you even allowed to say that?”. If we dive into a broader context, most of us are not honest in a work environment.
But this creates a dilemma. To solve a business or a product’s problem, we need people to be open with their thoughts. We need people to come in and say when something is wrong. Because, who wants to launch a lousy product on the market? Or a new feature, service, you name it.
In a 1–1 environment, we are usually are open. But when we are in a group, our animal instincts start to kick in, and fear takes over. We want to secure a good opinion that everyone likes, and not be the rebel in the room. On a subconscious level we want to conform with the norms.
So what does this have to do with Pixar? Because they were able to design, what I call, a truly creative environment that allows great ideas to flourish. An environment where creativity and personality is a must have. And not because having one is cool or was taken from a Harvard Business Review article for the sake of a research. Pixar created a creative environment that not only sits on posters through hallways, but also in management meetings.
A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticism. Lack of honesty, if unchecked, leads to dysfunctional environments. — Ed Catmull
Can you be more specific?
There is one key mechanism that Pixar uses all the time, and it is called — Braintrust. Every few months there is a meeting in which people discuss in an open talk the progress of their movies. The goal of this meeting is simple: put smart and passionate people in a room, give them a problem to solve and encourage them to be honest and open with each other. People who feel obligated to be honest, usually are more open and genuine in their opinion. They can express themselves open, without the feeling that they are going to lose their job or get a bad reputation afterwards. There is no authority and everyone is equal in these meeting. But the main element is of course — honesty. This is the essence of Braintrust. That’s why, Braintrust, sets the tone for everything Pixar does.
Why they use Braintrust meetings?
You sit in a room with smart and well-respected people to discuss the future of your company product. There are many good reasons on why you would want to be careful on what you say. You will think twice before saying something stupid. You will think about how much work other person did before criticising how bad it is. After you said something stupid and nobody took it into account, you would think: “how many times can I tell something dumb again?” At this stage, you are not even thinking about being honest. You are thinking about not being an idiot in front of the man signing your pay check.
People who take on complicated and creative projects become lost along the way. To create something great, you have to become part of the plan. You have to live and breath it. But it also becomes a problem, because you lose sight of what is essential. And at one moment you will need an honest point of view to help you get back on track. Now, you may be thinking:
How is Braintrust different from any other feedback mechanism?
There are two differentiating factors. First, the Braintrust team is made of people who have a deep understanding of the subject and usually people who have been through this process themselves.
And the most important one is that there is no authority. This is important because the person who is in charge of the project does not have to follow the feedback. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out what to do next. These meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-that. By removing the authority from Braintrust meetings, you give the flexibility for people to be creative.
So the game Pixar plays is that they don’t want to be prescriptive, but offer honesty and in-depth analysis. Braintrust is benevolent. It wants to help. And it has no selfish agenda.
Tell me how Braintrust works for Pixar in a real-life example
On an appointed morning, the Braintrust gathers for a screening of the film in progress. After the screening, they head into a conference room, have some lunch, collect their thoughts, and sit down and talk.
The director and producer of the film give a summary of where they think they are. “We’ve locked down the first act, but we know that the second act still needs some work.”
While everyone has an equal voice, there is usually someone who starts and sets the tone for the meeting. The person identifies some themes he likes or dislikes, and shows things that he thinks needs improvement. That’s all it takes to launch a back and forth. Everybody jumps in with observations and thoughts about the film. In the end, it looks like a party chat. Everybody talks freely with each other, sharing ideas and opinions and not thinking about the consequences.
Make sure that the person in charge is ready to receive unfiltered criticism
A crucial element of Braintrust meetings is that the person in charge of the project must be ready to hear the truth. Honesty is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open-minded and willing to let go of things that don’t work. It is natural for people to fear such an unfiltered environment and feel threatened and unpleasant. Like a trip to the dentist. But it is all about perspective.
The goal of the meeting is to look at different points of views. But in a typical competitive environment, you would generally compare your idea against others, turning the discussion into a debate that must be won or lost. Braintrust is an additive approach. It is a way of other people contributing something (whether idea or criticism).
The goal of Braintrust is to broaden your perspective.
You don’t need to work for Pixar to be part of Braintrust. Create your own
Telling the truth is difficult, but it is the only way for a creative culture to thrive and grow. Every creative person, no matter of his field, can create his own “solution group”. What will you need to create it:
- The people you choose must make you think smarter;
- People should be able to put lots of solutions on the table in short amounts of time;
And the point is, it doesn’t have to be someone with the expertise. Great ideas can come from anyone. Janitor, intern, customers or even your mother. If they can help you do that, they should be at the table. Creative culture can be created when you find people that are willing to level with you and make you grow. Once you see them, hold them close.
The article was inspired from the book Creativity, Inc. by Edwin Catmull. I encourage you to read the book and learn more on how Pixar works, how it was founded, how they create those great movies and many more.