Creativity Inc – Ed Catmull
CHANGE AND RANDOMNESS
There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get, deep in your gut, when you’re about to stand up in front of your entire company and say something you know has the potential to be upsetting. The day Steve, John, and I called an all-employee meeting to announce our decision to sell Pixar to Disney in 2006 was definitely one of those moments. We knew that the prospect of our little studio being absorbed into a much larger entity would worry many people. While we’d worked hard to put safeguards in place that would ensure our independence, we still expected our employees to be fearful that the merger would negatively impact our culture. I’ll say more about the specific steps we took to protect Pixar in a later chapter, but here I want to discuss what happened when, in my eagerness to ease my colleagues’ fears, I stood up and assured them that Pixar would not change.
It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said.
For the next year or so, whenever we wanted to try something new or rethink an established way of working, a steady stream of alarmed and upset people would show up at my office. “You promised the merger wouldn’t affect the way we work,” they’d say. “You said that Pixar would never change.”
This happened enough that I called another company-wide meeting to explain myself. “What I meant,” I said, “was that we aren’t going to change because we were acquired by a larger company. We will still go through the kinds of changes that we would have gone through anyway. Furthermore, we are always changing, because change is a good thing.”
I was glad I’d cleared that up. Except that I hadn’t. In the end, I had to give the “Of course we will continue to change” speech three times before it finally sunk in.
What was interesting to me was that the changes that sparked so much concern had nothing to do with the merger. These were the normal adjustments that have to be made when a business expands and evolves. It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.
For example, around the time of the merger, we were evaluating how to strike a balance between original films and sequels. We knew that audiences who loved our films were eager to see more stories set in those worlds (and, of course, the marketing and consumer products people want films that are easier to sell, which sequels always are). However, if we only made sequels, Pixar would wither and die. I thought of sequels as a sort of creative bankruptcy. We needed a constant churn of new ideas, even though we knew that original films are riskier. We recognized that making sequels, which were likely to do well at the box office, gave us more leeway to take those risks. Therefore, we came to the conclusion that a blend—one original film each year and a sequel every other year, or three films every two years—seemed a reasonable way to keep us both financially and creatively healthy.
At that point, Pixar had undertaken only one sequel, Toy Story 2. So our decision, because it occurred in such proximity to the merger, made many people assume that Disney was pressuring us to make more sequels. This isn’t what happened. In fact, Disney gave us a great deal of latitude. Though we said this at the time, our words were greeted with skepticism.
We experienced similar confusion around the issue of office space. As we staffed up to meet the more intense production demands, we quickly outgrew our main Pixar building. Needing more room, we leased an annex a few blocks away that would house the next production we were developing, Brave, as well as the engineers in the software tools group, who were working on the next generation of our animation software. Soon after, people began showing up in my office again. Why, they wanted to know, were we separating our tools engineers from all of our production artists except those working on Brave? Why were we splitting up our story and art departments, who were accustomed to sitting together?
In short, it seemed like every issue, big or small, that arose around this time was chalked up to the merger: “You said things wouldn’t change! You’re breaking your word! We don’t want to lose the old Pixar!” I should say that this outcry came despite the fact that the measures we had put in place to protect Pixar’s culture were working—and, in my view, were a model for how to maintain cultural integrity after a merger. Still, people felt vulnerable—and that bred suspicion. More and more, I began to think that many of our employees viewed any change as a threat to the Pixar way (and, as such, to our ability to be successful going forward).
People want to hang on to things that work—stories that work, methods that work, strategies that work. You figure something out, it works, so you keep doing it—this is what an organization that is committed to learning does. And as we become successful, our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change.
Moreover, it is precisely because of the inevitability of change that people fight to hold on to what they know. Unfortunately, we often have little ability to distinguish between what works and is worth hanging on to and what is holding us back and worth discarding. If you polled the employees of any creative company, my guess is that the vast majority would say they believe in change. But my experience, postmerger, taught me something else: Fear of change—innate, stubborn, and resistant to reason—is a powerful force. In many ways, it reminded me of Musical Chairs: We cling as long as possible to the perceived “safe” place that we already know, refusing to loosen our grip until we feel sure another safe place awaits.