I am not a big reader of conventional business books with a how-to/advice approach.

Instead, I prefer warts-and-all narratives which let the reader draw conclusions and apply them to their particular situation. (Recent reads for me were Disrupted and Super Pumped. Two of my all-time favorites are The Hard Thing About Hard Things and Kitchen Confidential. I found great value in them, but they are not certainly not your typical Jim Collins fare.)

Last week, on the advice of one of Gain’s engineers, I broke out of my typical pattern for Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unforeseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. This is Ed Catmull’s recounting of the founding of Pixar and the establishment of the culture that spawned a string of creative and commercial hits including Toy Story, Ratatouille, Brave, and Finding Nemo

Yes, it is very much a teaching book, with chapters organized as lessons. But, it is also surprisingly good and relevant.

What I found most interesting was how Pixar has created structured feedback sessions where people openly discuss one another’s work as it is flight. One such example is a dailies session, where animators present their work, often in early stages, for group feedback and, yes, criticism.

As Catmull described: 

“Dailies are a key part of Pixar culture, not just because of what they accomplish – constructive midstream feedback – but because of how they accomplish it. Participants have learned to check their egos at the door – they are about to show incomplete work to their director and colleagues…

“The critiques that were offered were specific and meticulous. Every scene was prosecuted relentlessly, and each animator seemed to welcome the feedback. ‘Is that stick big enough for everybody?’ Mark asked at one point, referring to a flimsy-looking branch that was supposed to keep a heavy door propped open in one scene… One by one, each scene that the group reviewed raised new issues. That old man who just ran up a flight of stairs? He should look more winded. The facial expression of a young spy? It could be more devilish…

“[S]haring and analyzing a team’s ongoing work effort every morning is, by definition, a group effort – but it does not come naturally. People join us with a set of expectations about what they think is important. They want to please, impress, and show their worth. They really don’t want to embarrass themselves by showing incomplete work or ill-conceived ideas, and they don’t want to say something dumb in front of the director. The first step is to teach them that everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions. When they realize this, the embarrassment goes away – and the embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.”

Pixar is an outlier in terms of a demonstrated, replicable process which harnesses creativity for unparalleled result. Their edge-case challenge – and their pattern of success – is truly remarkable.

So, how to tie this back to what we do?

Objectively, subjectively, and any other way you want to measure it, Pixar has a far cooler product than Gain Compliance. We make statutory financial reporting software for insurance companies. Pixar brought you Buzz Lightyear and Nemo; Gain’s innovations include a better way to collaborate on claims data reporting. On an abstract level, Gain, like Pixar, regularly has to solve really hard puzzles, and relies on the coordinated ingenuity and creativity of talented individuals.

For me, Catmull’s lesson is on culture, and it is certainly transferable.

A lot of the buzz about startups is on a different work culture, and much of the focus is on the superficial elements – ping pong tables, flexible schedules, open office plans, and other perks. This is slightly off-base, in terms of what matters most.

The piece of the Pixar culture that every startup should strive to emulate is not the visible working conditions, but rather an environment where people can have honest conversations, where people disagree and challenge, and where constructive criticism is, indeed, constructive. 

Cutmell’s team has created a place where people feel safe to show incomplete and imperfect work; not incidentally, this the absolute time to fix and improve the direction.

Highly-talented, driven individuals have a natural inclination to eschew feedback sessions such as Pixar’s dailies. In certain situations, such as when the solution is straightforward, a go-it-alone approach might actually be better. But, when the challenge is truly hard and creativity is required (and I count most product-led software startups in this category), true collaboration offers the best chance of success.

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