Marc Lougee

Visual Effects Supervisor, CW's The Flash

Pixar University- Tips for Creative Success

Fun Fact: Did you know animation giant PIXAR uses improv as a mechanism of collaboration?

It’s true. Randy Nelson said so (and Randy would know, being the former Dean of Pixar University).

Does improv work  as a means to foster collaboration? I’d say ‘Yeah’, judging from the staggering Levels of Awesome PIXAR has achieved over the years. Watching (& listening) as Randy elucidates PIXAR’s approach to collaboration versus mere cooperation is paradigm shaking, fer sure. In a nice way.  Well worth a few minutes to watch and absorb.

Below is a terrific summary posted at Garr Reynolds; equally awesome blog, Zenpresentation.com — I borrow here to illustrate the finer points of Randy’s chat. Garr Reynolds’ summary of the chat, with insights is that good, and important to clarify what all he’s got going on in his presentation.

(1) Accept every offer. Don’t judge it, you’ll stop it. It becomes a dead end if you judge it, but unlimited possibilities if you go with it.

(2) Make your partner look good. When you know others will try to make your idea better, not just shoot it down, you become free. And you too have the opportunity “to plus” any idea that is put forth. The idea of “plus-ing” means not to say that the idea (or thing) is bad or wishing it was something else, but to accept it as the starting point and make it even better. This is sort of zen in a way: accept it for what it is — right here, right now — and then try to make it better (to make your partner look good).

What should we be looking for?
Then Randy Nelson goes on to touch on the kind of person they are looking for at Pixar.
• Depth of knowledge/skill in a particular area is important, obviously. But then how do you hire someone for something that has never been done before? So past success alone is not enough as this may also include the absence of failures as much as anything else.
 Failure and recovery. Depth is important, but not the differentiator; lots of people can point to a successful, deep resume. It’s not about simply avoiding failure but the experience of seeing failure first hand and then rising above it.”The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance,” says Nelson. Resilience and adaptability in solving real problems is key.

Aptitudes for success in a creative world
(1) Mastery of subject (depth). “Mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done,” says Nelson. A true master at something is going to be the kind of person with characteristics that you can use in your organization. “That sense of ‘I am going to get to the top of the mountain’ separates them from all the other candidates almost instantly.”

(2) Breadth of knowledge, experience, and interests. You do not want narrowness which sometimes comes with depth. “We want people who are more interested than interesting,” says Nelson. A curious, interested person can be a good collaborator because they are not merely consumed with themselves but are deeply interested in the world outside of themselves. “They want to know what you know. They want to know what is bothering you.” An “interested” person amplifies others.

(3) Communication. An interested person with breadth has good empathy, an aptitude critical for good communication. A good communicator leans in to listen because they are interested. Communication, says Nelson, also involves translation. That is, having the ability to “translate” your idea into messages that others outside your field (or perspective and experiences, etc.) can understand.
A breadth of knowledge and experience should make it easier for someone to translate their own ideas at the sending end so that the message does not have to be translated at the receiving end. Communication actually happens only when the receiver understands; it’s not enough for the sender to think he is communicating. “Nobody can declare themselves as being articulate, but a listener can say, ‘yes, I think got that, I understand what you mean.”

(4) Collaboration. Cooperation is not the same thing as collaboration. Cooperation is just that thing “which allows you not to get in the other’s way,” says Nelson. Collaboration means amplification. In Collaboration you have people with depth and breadth and a drive and ability “to communicate on multiple different levels: verbally, in writing, in feeling, in acting, in pictures…and finding the most articulate way to get a high fidelity notion across to a broad range of people….” so that all on the team can contribute. I think of collaboration as being like 2+2=5 (or 137, etc.).

Collaboration and education
There are lessons to be learned from Pixar. Depth is necessary but insufficient. The importance of breadth and communication and collaboration skills cannot be overstated. And yet, when you look at formal education it seems like we discourage breadth. “Don’t study art,” they say. “You’ll never get a job in that!”

Communication skills are under appreciated “soft-skill” areas, and collaboration is rarely mentioned at all. I am certain that I never heard the word “collaborate” in high school. “Cooperate” was our instruction always, and we were rewarded for it, rewarded for getting along and not “causing trouble.” Perhaps today the notion of collaboration is being taught more in schools. Collaboration is hard because it requires mastery, breadth, empathy, and solid communication skills. But collaboration is more critical now than ever before.

Are our education systems prepared for it?

Note: This video was published in 2008. Randy Nelson has since moved on from Pixar Animation Studios, joining DreamWorks Animation  as Head of Artistic Development and Training.

Linkage:  Edutopia    ZenPresentation     Pixar Animation Studios     Dreamworks Animation    Pixar University  (SF Gate article)

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