Read an Excerpt
For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar that we call West One. Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for dinner—one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle—and has to shout to make conversation. The table had been chosen by a designer Steve Jobs liked, and it was elegant, all right—but it impeded our work.
We’d hold regular meetings about our movies around that table—thirty of us facing off in two long lines, often with more people seated along the walls—and everyone was so spread out that it was difficult to communicate. For those unlucky enough to be seated at the far ends, ideas didn’t flow because it was nearly impossible to make eye contact without craning your neck. Moreover, because it was important that the director and producer of the film in question be able to hear what everyone was saying, they had to be placed at the center of the table. So did Pixar’s creative leaders: John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative officer, and me, and a handful of our most experienced directors, producers, and writers. To ensure that these people were always seated together, someone began making place cards. We might as well have been at a formal dinner party.
When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. That’s what I believe. But unwittingly, we were allowing this table—and the resulting place card ritual—to send a different message. The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied, the more important—the more central—you must be. And the farther away, the less likely you were to speak up—your distance from the heart of the conversation made participating feel intrusive. If the table was crowded, as it often was, still more people would sit in chairs around the edges of the room, creating yet a third tier of participants (those at the center of the table, those at the ends, and those not at the table at all). Without intending to, we’d created an obstacle that discouraged people from jumping in.
Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way—completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles. Why were we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded. Those not sitting at the center of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we—the leaders—had intended that outcome. Who were they, then, to complain?
It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John and I realized what was wrong. Sitting around that table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognize that we were behaving contrary to that basic tenet. Over time, we’d fallen into a trap. Even though we were conscious that a room’s dynamics are critical to any good discussion, even though we believed that we were constantly on the lookout for problems, our vantage point blinded us to what was right before our eyes.
Emboldened by this new insight, I went to our Facilities Department. “Please,” I said, “I don’t care how you do it, but get that table out of there.” I wanted something that could be arranged into a more intimate square, so people could address each other directly and not feel like they didn’t matter. A few days later, as a critical meeting on an upcoming movie approached, our new table was installed, solving the problem.
Still, interestingly, there were remnants of that problem that did not immediately vanish just because we’d solved it. For example, the next time I walked into West One, I saw the brand-new table, arranged—as requested—in a more intimate square that made it possible for more people to interact at once. But the table was adorned with the same old place cards! While we’d fixed the key problem that had made place cards seem necessary, the cards themselves had become a tradition that would continue until we specifically dismantled it. This wasn’t as troubling an issue as the table itself, but it was something we had to address because cards implied hierarchy, and that was precisely what we were trying to avoid. When Andrew Stanton, one of our directors, entered the meeting room that morning, he grabbed several place cards and began randomly moving them around, narrating as he went. “We don’t need these anymore!” he said in a way that everyone in the room grasped. Only then did we succeed in eliminating this ancillary problem.
This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise—and they always do—disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavor. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve—think of that as an oak tree—and then there are all the other problems—think of these as saplings—that sprouted from the acorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down.
Even after all these years, I’m often surprised to find problems that have existed right in front of me, in plain sight. For me, the key to solving these problems is finding ways to see what’s working and what isn’t, which sounds a lot simpler than it is. Pixar today is managed according to this principle, but in a way I’ve been searching all my life for better ways of seeing. It began decades before Pixar even existed.
When I was a kid, I used to plunk myself down on the living room floor of my family’s modest Salt Lake City home a few minutes before 7 p.m. every Sunday and wait for Walt Disney. Specifically, I’d wait for him to appear on our black-and-white RCA with its tiny 12-inch screen. Even from a dozen feet away—the accepted wisdom at the time was that viewers should put one foot between them and the TV for every inch of screen—I was transfixed by what I saw.
Each week, Walt Disney himself opened the broadcast of The Wonderful World of Disney. Standing before me in suit and tie, like a kindly neighbor, he would demystify the Disney magic. He’d explain the use of synchronized sound in Steamboat Willie or talk about the importance of music in Fantasia. He always went out of his way to give credit to his forebears, the men—and, at this point, they were all men—who’d done the pioneering work upon which he was building his empire. He’d introduce the television audience to trailblazers such as Max Fleischer, of Koko the Clown and Betty Boop fame, and Winsor McCay, who made Gertie the Dinosaur—the first animated film to feature a character that expressed emotion—in 1914. He’d gather a group of his animators, designers, and storyboard artists to explain how they made Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck come to life. Each week, Disney created a made-up world, used cutting-edge technology to enable it, and then told us how he’d done it.
Walt Disney was one of my two boyhood idols. The other was Albert Einstein. To me, even at a young age, they represented the two poles of creativity. Disney was all about inventing the new. He brought things into being—both artistically and technologically—that did not exist before. Einstein, by contrast, was a master of explaining that which already was. I read every Einstein biography I could get my hands on as well as a little book he wrote on his theory of relativity. I loved how the concepts he developed forced people to change their approach to physics and matter, to view the universe from a different perspective. Wild-haired and iconic, Einstein dared to bend the implications of what we thought we knew. He solved the biggest puzzles of all and, in doing so, changed our understanding of reality.