Pixar’s Braintrust & Effective Meetings -The Business Lessons

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, created systems and norms in his company to build organizational culture. Braintrust was one of those systems.

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Image from Pixarplanet.com

Braintrust is a team of smart, passionate people who met once a month to discuss and assess the new movie’s concept and progress. In those meetings, the ideas were encouraged, reviewed, and scrutinized. The team’s vision was to push the company towards excellence and root out mediocrity.

What could we learn from Pixar's Braintrust meetings?

Braintrust team was a blend of experts, present leaders, and potential future leaders. The Pixar employees began to look at them as role models. So, Ed Catmull felt that he could use the Braintrust team to build a new culture.

Creating a new culture means establishing a distinct behavior that matches the vision and core values of the organization. One of the ways is to ask your team to focus all their energy on one or two critical actions that would play a pivotal role in the change. Asking a team to alter too many things at a time would make them passively resistant. The increased cognitive load would also make them lose interest in the behavior change process.

Ed Catmull gave just only one duty to his Braintrust team. He asked them to focus all their energy on one specific, critical aspect of the change that he wanted to bring. He told them to practice Candor at all the time in the meetings. Be candid about whatever you feel about the movie story.

This one single task helped Ed Catmull to build a culture of transparency inside the organization. Instead of focusing on too many things, the team members found it easy to follow this single thing. It was simple and clear.

So, what’s the critical behavior you want your meeting participants to follow?

Radical transparency inside an organization will bring all critical issues into the open. It will accelerate learning and increase the overall knowledge of the organization, leading to better decisions. Transparency also builds trust.

Practicing honesty at all times is one of the ways to build transparency. Unfortunately, sometimes, brutal honesty hurts people. We don’t want to embarrass people. We don’t want people to lose confidence in themselves and ruin their lives. People are the most vital asset in a company. So, What’s the solution?

Ed Catmull replaced the word Honest with Candor. He writes, “Candor has a similar meaning with fewer moral connotations and obligations. It means forthrightness or frankness. It’s not so different from honesty, yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve. Nobody thinks that being less than candid makes you a bad person.”

He further adds, “People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it or not.” The word places no pressure on people, unlike honesty.

Are you asking your meeting participants to practice Candor?

In meetings, many of us are afraid to talk. We are worried about being embarrassed, appearing stupid, or being exposed. Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? It’s human nature.

In Braintrust meetings, Ed Catmull asked participants not to think about themselves but think everything from the company or the story’s perspective.

  • What would be the right thing for the story/company?

It also gave additional benefits -Since the focus would be on the company and not himself/herself, he/she’d have less pressure while opening up in the meetings. He/she could express opinions, share feelings, and articulate theories without fear.

At Pixar, the participants were well aware that all great ideas were once rubbish.

A movie about talking toys? Oh! It’s crap. A film about a rat preparing food for humans? How horrible?. All those great movies were, in the beginning, appeared as a garbage idea. The director & the team believed in the story, started somewhere, collected candid feedback, iterated, reworking again & again until the flawed story found its soul. Every Braintrust member understands this. Consistent commitment and deep analysis matters.

Everyone who enters the Braintrust meeting believes that an idea’s true potential is unknown. It’s impossible to predict how working with passion, extensive analysis, iterations, and hard work could transform a concept.

The Braintrust team saw every idea as a springboard for growth and a challenge to stretch their existing abilities. Their first thought would be on how to improve the solution and not on approving or rejecting it. They enter meetings with an open mind.

THE ENVIRONMENT

To change someone’s behavior, you’ve got to change the person’s environment. And, it is the responsibility of the leader to create such an ecosystem.

It’s human nature to feel unpleasant about speaking something skeptical in the meeting. To overcome this, Ed Catmull created an environment where nobody had to fear of saying something stupid, hurting somebody, getting offended, or being retaliated. Nobody is going to ridicule him/her for his/her opinion. He asked each of the participants to focus only on the film(or problem or idea) and not on any hidden personal agenda. Mistakes are encouraged so that people can learn from them.

The participants earned no credits or rewards for their feedback on the project. They gained no favors from their supervisors. So, you are not going to be fired or demoted inside the organization.

Ed Catmull attended many of the Braintrust meetings, but his primary job was to make sure that the above environment is maintained and if anything contrary happens, bring it to awareness of everyone and solve along with them. Do you have an unbiased observer like Ed Catmull in your meetings?

The fearless culture made Braintrust team members feel comfortable sharing ideas, opinions, and criticisms.

Ed Catmull stressed constructive and candid feedback in the meetings. He asked each of the participants to focus only on the film(or problem or idea) and not on the movie director’s capabilities or personality.

The team discussed how the new movies were panning out. They would talk about what they feel is not working well for them, what could be better, and what’s not authentic.

Instead of saying that he/she is wrong, talk about the wrong things in the idea.

The Braintrust team’s function is to analyze the film and share their critical views, candidly. Whenever a director is emotionally attached to his movie, he or she would view the criticism as a personal attack. It would affect the film’s progress as the director would resist all new suggestions.

Ed Catmull kept advising people not to get attached to their idea. He writes, “You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

It’s for the benefactors -Ed actively and firmly planted the notion that a director should think that he/she’s creating the film, not for himself/herself but for others. That’s one of the ways to shift the focus from oneself and get detached emotionally from their idea. It’s about how your design can serve people better.

Gather Additional Values -One of the ways is to ensure the success of a concept is to seek different views. Multiple perspectives, not only add value to the idea but highlight the presence of hidden biases. As the Braintrust team had leaders of diverse disciplines -directors, writers, and heads of story, the information flowed from many directions and perspectives.

More the information, the lesser the hidden problems and better the decisions.

Ed Catmull made the director realize that the criticism in Braintrust meetings was not directed against anyone but at solving problems. He also requested the directors not to see the member’s ideas/suggestions as a competitive thing but something that would add value to his/her story.

A lot of incremental value-added solutions appended to your concept in a shorter time, present you as a smarter person to the world if the idea delivers.

Collaborative Work -An old proverb says -Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. On the contrary, the Braintrust team was more than willing to share the collective ownership of the failure of an idea. Ed Catmull writes that all of them had a vested interest in the movie’s success. The Braintrust team perceived the film as collaborative work & they felt that they play an active role in its success/failure. They are willing to learn from it and move the organization forward. It improved the director’s confidence in trusting the Braintrust team.

Thus, the Braintrust created an environment where the film directors willingly wanted to hear each other’s views, even though they knew the suggestions would not be pleasing to hear.

The Braintrust team had a mix of leaders and people from multiple hierarchy levels. Everyone was given equal importance during the meetings. There’s no particular respect for job titles or hierarchies.

The above point is an essential ingredient for a successful meeting -Ignore job titles & focus on the content.

Mutual Respect -In Braintrust meetings, everyone saw other participants as their PEERS. They respected each other.

Mutual respect should exist.

For mutual respect, everyone, including the leaders, should firmly believe that every individual in the organization is inherently valuable. That is an essential requirement for a successful outcome in a meeting.

The Braintrust team does not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They make suggestions. The Braintrust has no authority. Yes! You heard it right. Their primary role is to improve the idea through extensive analysis and candid feedback. It’s up to the director-in-charge of the story to establish a path forward. He/she does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given.

Ed Catmull writes that the Braintrust’s remedy won’t be as good as the one thought by the director and his/her team. They had been living with the problem/idea for several days. Naturally, they would be the best-equipped find a suitable solution.

It is another crucial factor for winning discussion -While giving feedback in the meeting, the participants can only share the diagnosis and suggest possible solutions. They could bring the real causes of the problems to the surface but should not demand a specific remedial action. The ultimate choice should be with the other person. As long as he or she is in charge of their decisions, they won’t feel threatened. They won’t feel hurt or embarrassed.

Empathy is the cornerstone of any winning discussion. The extent to which the team understands the reasons behind the idea/solution from the creator’s perspective determines the outcome of the meeting. So, participants of the meeting needed to empathize with the person whose idea they are going to analyze.

For the Braintrust team, Ed Catmull chose people who could understand the difficulties of being a director. -People with a deep understanding of storytelling -who have been through the process themselves. The directors also value feedback from fellow filmmakers/directors/storytellers.

“Ed Catmull compared the Braintrust process to the Academic Peer Review process. Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competences as the producers of the work.”

Ed Catmull didn’t allow non-filmmakers or non-creative people into the team as he felt they lacked adequate domain experience and relevant knowledge that rendered their concepts, meaningless. He didn’t even allow Steve Jobs for any of the meetings. Ed Catmull’s idea was clear -only people who could empathize with the person can be part of the Braintrust team. A director who had struggled earlier with his dilemmas can see another director’s struggles more clearly than his own.

We are a social species. Our ancestors, as a hunter-gatherer, have survived on this vulnerable planet due to group-thinking. The tribal gatherings and discussions had also enhanced emotional attachment among them. We are here because of that shared knowledge and experience in those meetings.

So, meetings in our work-place can help us to make better decisions but also to build an emotional connection among everyone. Let’s build a strong community that can help each other.

References: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, Principles by Ray Dalio, Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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