The Pixar Braintrust: How Candor Leads to Great Ideas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the Pixar Braintrust? How does the Pixar Braintrust support open communication and solicit good ideas?

The Pixar Braintrust was created by Ed Catmull. During these meetings, Pixar team members who aren’t directly involved in a particular project gather to watch material and provide feedback.

Read more the Pixar Braintrust, how it worked, and what made it successful.

Establishing the Pixar Braintrust

Candor is a willingness to be forthright about issues, concerns, and ideas. In a creative environment, candor allows teams to get straightforward feedback to improve their final product. This helps employees see flaws they may have been blind to and get suggestions to move forward. 

To ensure that employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions, develop a judgment-free environment that allows employees to speak up. At Pixar, Catmull developed this environment using a process he called Pixar Braintrust Meetings. Every few months, Pixar team members who aren’t directly involved in a particular project gather to watch material from the project. Afterward, they talk with the project’s director and head creatives about issues and potential routes forward. These meetings rely on everyone sharing their opinions openly and willingly. 

Navigating Fear and Insecurity

Ensuring candor isn’t easy. People often let their fears and insecurities get in the way of open feedback. As a leader, Catmull believed his responsibility was to ensure people feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts. For example, new members attending Braintrust Meetings often feel insecure about sharing their opinion because they’re new to the group and don’t want to step on any toes.

To navigate this, you have to remind employees of the following:

  • Open dialogue is critical to the creative process. Without open feedback, flaws and issues can’t be addressed as they arise and can lead to serious problems down the road. 
  • Feedback won’t lead to retaliation. Many employees (especially lower-level employees or new team members) fear their critiques and suggestions will lead to resentment from colleagues. To ensure candor, you have to constantly remind employees that they won’t be punished for their openness, even if their opinion is contentious or unpopular. 

Discussion is more effective than written feedback. Written notes make the process of critique more comfortable as you don’t have to contend with the immediate emotions of the other person. However, written notes can often be misconstrued and don’t give the person receiving the feedback a chance to ask for clarification. Delivering notes in-person lets you control the tone and allows the other person to ask follow-up questions.

Pixar’s Notes Day

In addition to Pixar Braintrust Meetings, Pixar uses another forum for the discussion of feedback through “Notes Day.” On Notes Day, Pixar shuts down regular operations and runs a variety of discussion forums based on topics submitted by employees. These topics range from highly technical concerns such as rendering techniques to common issues such as dealing with entitled people. While Braintrust Meetings help the company dissect the issues of a film, this method of feedback keeps Pixar up-to-date on issues outside of those specifically related to a project. Pixar leaders use this information to find problems they may not have noticed and crowdsource solutions to issues.

The Pixar Braintrust: How Candor Leads to Great Ideas

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ed Catmull's "Creativity, Inc." at Shortform .

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  • How Pixar went from selling computers to successful animation studio
  • What it takes to build a creative workplace culture
  • Why George Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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