Ed Catmull on Failure (Creativity Inc)

It may seem inauthentic for the leader of one of the most successful animation studios to talk about failure, but the truth is that Pixar has had numerous misfires and “failures”. As President of Pixar, Ed Catmull has successfully encouraged his company to treat these failures as R&D investments and has encouraged productive and healthy responses to failure.

Ed believes failure is not a necessary evil but an inevitable consequence of doing something new. Despite a plethora of articles on failure and its benefits most of us still have the same emotional response to failure as we did as children; failure means we didn’t study enough, or we’re just dumb. And it hurts. To create and maintain a positive approach to failure we have to make sure this pain doesn’t entirely warp our understanding of its worth.

My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable in high stakes situations. What I want to do is loosen its grip on us.” (111)

Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s directors, is apparently one of the greatest spokespeople within Pixar for this approach. He is famous for pithy advice like Fail early and fast and Be wrong as fast as you can. Andrew draws the analogy between doing something new and trying to ride a bike stating that it would be inconceivable that you could learn to ride a bike without the odd wobble or grazed knee.

Interpreting this approach to mean - accept your failures with dignity and move on - apparently misses the point. Failure, instead, should be viewed as an expected offshoot of exploration and learning. Ed even goes so far as to say:

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake. You are being driven by the desire to avoid it” (109)

Ed uses the example of the Golden Fleece award (an award given to govt-funded research projects that proved to be the biggest wastes of money) to illustrate how the vilification of making mistakes had a distressing effect on the climate of science. In an effort to avoid being awarded a Golden Fleece, researchers became more conservative with their research requests and avoided proposing studies that could prove a waste of time and resources.

 “The truth is, if you find thousands of research projects every year, some will have obvious, measurable, positive impacts and others will go nowhere. We aren’t very good at predicting the future – that’s a given – and yet the Golden Fleece Awards tacitly implied that researchers should know before they do their research whether or not the results of that research would have value.” 110

Ed describes how a failure-averse culture impedes innovation:

“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.” 111

Ed suggests scrutinizing the last time you made a mistake, and your reaction to it. If you shut down, or worked quickly to find a scapegoat or an excuse, he gently suggests you have not yet learned to see failure as something to face without fear. And if that’s the case (which sadly, it is with me), then how do we change this?

“Part of the answer is simple: If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others” (111)

The other part is about uncoupling fear and failure “to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employee’s hearts” (123).

Ed believes trust is the best tool for driving out fear; “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions – and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure. (125)

One example of how Pixar responds well to failure was during the process of Monsters Inc. This film went through countless storyline dead ends before the team found where the story needed to go. When the team came to yet another dead end of an approach, they didn’t see this as their failure but instead recognized they were one step closer to the better option. Part of the reason for this is that the culture accepts experimentation as necessary and productive. Ed draws links to the scientific process of trial and error.

“When scientists have a question, they construct hypotheses, test them, analyze them, and draw conclusions – and then they do it all over again. The reasoning behind this is simple: Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding.” 113

Expecting and accepting failure illuminates the importance of decisiveness. Ed believes that meticulous planning and excessive time spent weighing up all possible approaches is counterproductive. One reason for this is that it’s easier to plan derivative work so if you’re striving to make something new, planning for it is impossible and irrational. In his experience, people who delay action in order to plan are just as likely to be wrong and what’s more, the planners take longer to be wrong, are more crushed by the feeling of failure and have developed an attachment to the idea that makes it more difficult to shake off and move in a new direction.

Ed describes this fearless and decisive approach as “identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them... “The time they’ve saved by not ganshing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path, you have to go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possible see when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explored the neighbourhood.” The key point here is that even if you decide you’re in the wrong place, there is still time to head towards the right place. And all the thinking you’ve done that lead you down that alley was not wasted.” (111 -2)

This approach Ed details below echoes Anne Bogart's insight that: "If what Picasso proposed is true, that the first stroke on the canvas is always a mistake, it is best to get on with the mistake, without delay, earlier rather than later." (What's the Story? p24)

The remainder of the Fear and Failure chapter is sobering after such a convincing argument for fearlessness, boldness and innovation in the creative workplace. Ed describes some of the occasions a director was removed from a project or a movie was shut down completely because the crew had lost confidence in the director or the movie was not developing at a reasonable rate. After a run of failures, a two-day off-site meeting was organized with Pixar’s producers and directors to try and figure out what had happened. Ed describes how the staff responded to the question by neither running from their own failures nor blaming anyone else or expecting someone else to solve them.

This was one of Ed’s proudest moments and illustrates that he truly believes there are two parts to any failure - the event itself and the reaction to it - and the latter is as worthy of scrutiny.