Pixar’s Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age

Post written by Chris Spagnuolo. Follow Chris on Twitter 4 comments

While laying in bed recovering from an injury last year, I was stumbling around through the myriad of video podcasts I subscribe to and decided to take a look at some of the videos in the The George Lucas Educational Foundation Integrated Studies series. That’s where I came across this gem featuring Pixar’s Randy Nelson who is the Dean of Pixar University. He’s giving a short talk entitled Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age at the Apple Education Leadership Summit in April of 2008:

In his very casual and easy style, Nelson starts off by talking about how PIxar uses improv as a method of collaboration. In that method, two principles have surfaced that have guided Pixar:

  1. Accept every offer. You don’t know where that offer is going to go. But one thing is for sure: If you don’t accept that offer, it’s going nowhere! So you have a sure thing on one hand: a dead end. And you have possibility on the other.
  2. Make you partner look good. That means that everybody on your team is going to try to make you look good and vice versa. And it’s not about judgement or saying “This is pretty good. How can I make it better?”. It’s about saying “Here’s where I’m starting. What can I do with this?”. Nelson calls this “plus-ing“.

I passed this video along to my friend Bert Decker, CEO of Decker Communications, to get his take on this as it is right up his alley. Here’s what Bert had to say:

“Randy talks about ‘plus-ing’. Sue [Walden of ImprovWorks] calls it “yes, and…” What we mention in our advanced course is two essential rules of improv that you can apply to all communications, (and life for that matter) is:

  1. Always positive (yes, and…)
  2. Support your partner

And of course there’s ‘forward lean’ but that comes even before improv….”

Based on those two principles, Pixar looks to find people who are really good at something. And Pixar is really good at being innovative. So, how do you find people who are really good at being innovative? If something has never been done before and it’s truly innovative, how do you find the people to do it. According to Nelson “You look for people who have seen failure and figured out how to make something from it. The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance. We’re looking for resiliency and adaptability.” Wow, how many places think like this? I mean really think this way and not just pay the lip service. Not many trust me. It’s so great to see a hugely successful organization express this attitude out loud and really mean it.

What Pixar has realized is that a great predictor of innovation is mastery of something. It could be mastery of anything. The important thing is the personality that goes along with mastery. It’s that sense of “I’m going to get to the top of that mountain” that you can use in your enterprise. It’s called depth. Nelson goes on to say that given the fast pace of business these days, there’s very little chance that people are going to achieve mastery on the job. You want them to be masters coming in the door.

Another predictor of success is breadth. No one-trick ponies. We want to find people with lots of experiences (not necessarily “experience”). People with a breadth of experiences are deeply interested in many things. My favorite quote from Nelson: “We’re looking for people who are interested…not interesting.” Interested is tough, interesting is easy. Interested is a real skill. If you say “I’ve got a problem”, interested people lean in. They amplify you. They want to know what YOU want to know.

The notion of breadth leads to Nelson’s third predictor, communication. Another awesome quote, especially for all of you developers and techies out there: “Communication involves translation.” If you just emit tech, nobody really hears you. The translation gets pushed to the receiving end of the conversation and gets garbled. Do the translation at the SENDING end so that it doesn’t have to be done at the receiving end and the listener can say, “I understand”. So, no non-communicative techies! Nelson says that “Communication is not something the emitter can measure.” You can’t declare yourself as articulate or a good communicator…only your listener can. People who are interested are more likely to view communication as a destination rather than as a source. Nelson postulates that breadth and a broad range of experiences is the thing that fuels that. To me, this notion of communication as a destination not a source is extremely crucial to the success of teams comprised of so many different skillsets and levels of technical expertise.

According to Nelson though, the most important predictor of success and innovation is collaboration. But what is collaboration? Real collaboration? It’s not cooperation. We’ve been conditioned to jump to this answer very quickly. We all think “We have to cooperate to get our jobs done. That’s collaboration.” But, all this really means is we’re not getting in each other’s way. Nelson says that the things that get done in a cooperative enterprise could, in effect, all be done by one person if we had enough time and resources. He says that there is nothing in a cooperative workplace that job one does that can make job two better. Job one can prevent job two from getting done, but there’s nothing job one can do to make job two better. Collaboration is not a synonym for cooperation.

So what does collaboration mean if it’s not about cooperation? Nelson says that collaboration for Pixar means AMPLIFICATION. It means connecting a group of individuals that are INTERESTED in each other, that bring separate DEPTH to the problem and that bring a BREADTH that gives them interest in the entire solution. And most importantly, it allows them to COMMUNICATE on multiple different levels: verbally, in writing, feeling, acting, pictures. In all of these ways, Nelson says “They find the most articulate way to get a high fidelity notion across to a broad range of people so they can each pull on the right lever”. I absolutely love this definition of collaboration and it’s all rooted in a collective vision that everyone understands and can relate to.

After listening to Nelson walk through these four points with passion and enthusiasm, it’s no wonder why Pixar has been immensely successful in their endeavors. After a little digging and emailing, I found that indeed, Pixar’s HR department uses all four of these predictors for the basis of their hires. They don’t just look at a candidate’s experience or resume. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Nelson said:

“The problem with the Hollywood model is that it’s generally the day you wrap production that you realize you’ve finally figured out how to work together,” Mr. Nelson said. “We’ve made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we develop people. Instead of investing in ideas, we invest in people. We’re trying to create a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners. It’s no trick for talented people to be interesting, but it’s a gift to be interested. We want an organization filled with interested people.”

The things Nelson describes are intangible, you can’t write them down. But when you talk with and work with people who possess these traits, you know who they are right away. And they’re the kind of people you want on your team. Give me 10 people like this over 100 people with years of experience and you can do incredible things.

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  1. Ryan Martens said,

    Thanks for sharing this video and thread.

    Have you read “Artful Making” by Lee Devin and Rob Austin?  Great companion to this talk.  We need an improve course at Rally!

  2. BertDecker (Bert Decker) said,

    RT @ChrisSpagnuolo: Today’s blog post: Pixar’s secrets to success and innovation: http://is.gd/j8o2

  3. Chris said,

    My colleague, Ronica Roth, pointed me to this abstract from the Harvard Business Review about Pixar:

    How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity:
    September 2008 Issue
    Reprint # R0809D

    Many people believe that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, couldn’t disagree more. That notion, he says, is rooted in a misguided view of creativity that exaggerates the importance of the initial idea in developing an original product. And it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how to manage the large risks inherent in producing breakthroughs. In filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many inherently unforeseeable problems. The trick to fostering collective creativity, Catmull says, is threefold: Place the creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders (as opposed to corporate executives); build a culture and processes that encourage people to share their work-in-progress and support one another as peers; and dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines. Mindful of the rise and fall of so many tech companies, Catmull has also sought ways to continually challenge Pixar’s assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy its culture. Clear values, constant communication, routine postmortems, and the regular injection of outsiders who will challenge the status quo are necessary but not enough to stay on the rails. Strong leadership is essential to make sure people don’t pay lip service to those standards. For example, Catmull comes to the orientation sessions for all new hires, where he talks about the mistakes Pixar has made so people don’t assume that just because the company is successful, everything it does is right.

  4. Conor Neill said,

    I had just written and published a little post on Randy’s ideas when I came across your post – which is much better written and deeper analysis. I link through to your post for readers who want a deeper post ;-)  Thanks and hope you are fully recovered from last year’s injury.

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