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The Secret Skill Behind Pixar’s Creative Genius

Pixar is one of the most successful creative enterprises of the modern era. I recently read Creativity, Inc., written by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. While the book contains a tremendous wealth of advice, I was most intrigued by what he shared to be the ONE skill to create greatness: Candor.
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Pixar’s Secret Skill: Candor

Early in the company’s history, Pixar’s founders came to one simple (and painful) realization: All early ideas suck. Their choice of the term “suck” is a deliberate one - it is used to bluntly communicate just how bad those early ideas are. However, this bluntness served a purpose in that it prompted iteration after iteration to turn these bad ideas into great ones. Ed phrased this process as one of going from “suck to not-suck” and it was predicated on a team and company culture of candor.

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“Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process.” - Ed Catmull

But what does it really mean to be candid? I’ve seen many professionals (mis)interpret this in the way that Steve Jobs was candid. In other words, they tell peers that their work “sucked” and leave it at that. That’s not how to be candid, that’s how to be a jerk. Read on for three ways to use workplace candor in a way that promotes productivity:

1. Treat the work of others as if it were your own

Let’s be honest, the cliché is true: We’re all our own worst critics. So, the best way to help someone else’s work is to treat it as if it were your own. Invest yourself as much as if it was your idea, rather than merely sit in judgment of it. A creative project can only reach its true potential if everybody is working toward its success.

“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific.” — Ed Catmull

It’s easy for someone to walk in and say, “that doesn’t work,” or “I don’t like it,” but that stops the creative process in its tracks. Feedback should never be the expression of a mere opinion without suggestions for how to improve.

2. Realize that great work takes countless iterations

One of the preeminent social psychologists of our time, Dr. Jerome Kagan, has shown that humans are biologically wired to want to be done with something as soon as possible, termed “cognitive closure.” We equate “faster” with “better” and increased speed with increased productivity. Yet, that’s not necessarily the case if quality is sacrificed in the process.

Quite simply, don’t do that! Push back against the internal (or external) pressure to rush to a solution. Recognize that initial ideas will “suck” and ideas need candid feedback from other people (and often multiple rounds of feedback) to go from “suck to not-suck.”

Illustratively, we’ve found our product ideas usually take at minimum 3 rounds of blunt candor and iterations to reach their full potential at Matter. Yes, this means that the process to production is longer overall, but what we gain in caliber is well worth the wait.

3. Realize the purpose of candor is to make something great

“Making something great is the goal.” — Ed Catmull

Let the delivery and content of candid feedback be driven by your desire to make something great. It’s easy for feedback to be taken personally by the recipient, even if that isn’t the intent. However, if you develop and convey feedback with the purpose of improving the process (not the person), you reduce the risk of offending the recipient.

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“I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of s—t and I can tell them the same... That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest.” — Steve Jobs

Candor is for all companies (not just the creatively-driven ones)

Jack-Welch-absence-of-candor-in-the-workplacePixar isn’t the first organization to appreciate candor and notably, its power extends to companies of all types. Take General Electric, a company that could not be more different than Pixar. Jack Welch, the CEO of GE for 20 years, has spoken about the integral role of candor in their workplace:

“The absence of candor in the workplace represents one of the most significant obstacles to companies' success. In a bureaucracy, people are afraid to speak out. This type of environment slows you down, and it doesn't improve the workplace.” — Jack Welch

Of course, candor at Pixar is different than candor at General Electric. You can play an important role in creating a company culture that values and promotes candor. Work with your colleagues to find the right way to be candid to drive the iterative process and create extraordinary products.

Ready to get candid?

Matter can help! Use Matter to get (and give!) candid feedback with your peers. Get Matter for free.

The Secret Skill Behind Pixar’s Creative Genius
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