Former Pixar SVP on Creative Conflict & Why Well-Designed Offices Win

By Scott Kirsner |  March 10, 2016

Greg Brandeau spent three years working for Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer, and then more than a decade building Pixar Animation Studios into one of the most successful creative businesses in the world. Brandeau served as SVP of Technology at Pixar, and then became Chief Technology Officer at Walt Disney Studios following Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006.

He’s also one of the co-authors of the book “Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.” InnoLead editor Scott Kirsner spoke with Brandeau recently about why conflict is essential to meetings; the importance of physical space, and letting employees have an imprint on it; and why so many companies think about “who’s right” instead of “what’s right” when making decisions. Brandeau also shared an illustration from the book and an assessment test.

Brandeau will be one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Front End of Innovation conference, taking place in Boston on May 10-12.

Why Physical Space is so Important

InnoLead: When I’ve visited Pixar, one of the things that is clear is just how much thought went into the physical space. Why was that so important — was it just [former CEO] Steve Jobs’ obsession with design?

Greg Brandeau: Steve had the brilliant insight that it’s chance encounters that cause innovation to happen. When I’m walking down the hall daydreaming, and I see somebody who I’ve been meaning to talk to, I stop that person. “I was thinking about X.” And they say, “I was thinking about that, too,” or, “I hadn’t even had thought of that.” It’s not a structured meeting where we’re going to talk about this one thing.

At Pixar, we built the building so all the food, restrooms, and conference rooms were in the center of the building. There is no way to be in the building without going into the center at some point. It forces the mixing of people who would not otherwise necessarily see each other.

You can easily imagine you could have stovepipes if you had the story and art people and the computer scientists and network engineers not bumping into each other. When you do, someone can say, “Here’s what is frustrating me about trying to make this new character,” and an engineer might say, “Let me look into how you could do that.”

You have all sorts of bizarre conversations happening in the atrium that cause people to think differently. It’s not an enforced thinking differently — it’s an organic thinking differently.

The atrium in the Steve Jobs Building, as seen on September 11, 2013 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

InnoLead: There’s also a culture at Pixar of being able to do extreme office decorating — someone showed me one of the secret bars the last time I was there.

Brandeau: We used to be in these crappy buildings in Point Richmond. Every time a tenant would leave, we would get their space. People sat wherever we could cram them in. The animators were in a giant room, and they built a luau bar. Everybody had to outdo their peers.

When Steve built the [new] building, his version of the building would’ve been nice, modern, austere — all black and white, like the NeXT computer. He could be very inflexible and dictatorial.

At the time, we were in the middle of the production of Monsters, Inc., and we had a week to move from Point Richmond to the new building [in Emeryville, near Berkeley.] We were looking at this building and thinking, “This is going to be the death of Pixar.” Inside, every office was going to be white.

So [just before we moved,] we sent people down to Home Depot, and told them, “Go buy the paint you want, and paint your space whatever color you want.” …One of the first offices we painted ended up a dark maroon. The architects came in and almost burst into tears.

The Lucky 7 Lounge came about because there were places where there were voids in the building, behind the sheetrock. [It was a space that was] not quite big enough to put an office in, and it had no windows. People said, “We could have our own little secret hideaway.” So they did.

Comparing the Disney and Pixar Cultures

InnoLead: Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006. What did you observe about how the Disney and Pixar cultures were different?

Brandeau: [After the acquisition,] we’d go down to Disney Animation [in Glendale, Calif.], and they had 700 people there, just like Pixar.

I had an office in the hat building [shaped like Mickey’s hat in the film “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”], and I would see ten people every day, at most. It was built as a bunch of rat warrens. There was no mixing going on. Zero. You’d never see anybody else. And there was a horrific hierarchical culture of who was in charge and who was not.

At Disney, the highest-level people were the story people, and the lowest people below everybody else were the technology people — and they were trying to make computer-generated films.

You’d go into a meeting, and very few people would talk. Nobody would contradict each other — ever. Then you’d get out of the meeting, and it’s like, “I don’t agree with that at all.” Then everybody would go and do their own thing.

What we did — we being [Pixar President] Ed [Catmull], [Chief Creative Officer] John [Lasseter], me and [Pixar CFO] Ali [Rowghani] — was try to change the culture. First, we took the center of the building, cut out all these offices, and made a mini-atrium. We put in tables and a coffee bar and games, so people would come and sit and talk to each other.

[We also said that] you can’t have meetings where you don’t argue. Directors have to critique each others’ films, or else how ar eyou going to learn from each other? Wouldn’t you want to go to a colleague and say, “Hey, what do you think?”

Roll the clock forward, and Disney put out “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6” and other blockbusters. They’re putting out amazing films.

InnoLead: Were there some factors that you think made Disney more open to cultural change, more willing to make changes at that point?

Brandeau: [CEO] Bob Iger was at one of the Disneyland parks, maybe Tokyo, and he was watching the parade. He noticed that most of the characters in the parade were Pixar characters. He knew that the engine that drives the company is characters and story — from there, everything else is derived. [Disney Animation] had nowhere further down to go. They were so broken… their films at the box office were losing huge amounts. It wasn’t a two percent leak in the life raft.

Why Creative Abrasion is a Good Thing

InnoLead: In the book, you talk about the importance of “creativity agility” and “abrasion” and “resolution.” Can you explain how those work?

Brandeau: Creative abrasion is the ability to have difficult conversations. It’s like taking sandpaper and polishing something. You have a number of diverse points of view in the same room, and everybody is riffing off of each other’s ideas. You’re doing [the improvisational comedy approach of] “yes, and” instead of “yes, but.”

Creative agility involves trying something that has never been done before — “we’ll do tests, and some may not work.” You need to know that you are not going to get fired if [the test] doesn’t work.

The next piece is creative resolution: how do you make decisions? In many companies, the people with the [most senior] title get to decide. But in the best companies, decisions flow to the people with the most knowledge about what should be done. You want people to do what’s right, not who’s right.

One choice by a leader that nobody challenges can cause a company to go down. But if people anywhere in the company can respectfully disagree, you can avoid that.

Leaders Set the Stage for Innovation

InnoLead: We talk to innovation leaders who work in many different parts of the company — some technology, some R&D, some strategy. Is there a common thread you see among them?

Brandeau: What do leaders of innovation do? They see themselves as stage-setters or context creators. They hire a bunch of smart, diverse people and let them have at it. It’s not that the leader has the idea of what to do; the vision is an emergent property of the organization.

InnoLead: Companies like Pixar are lucky to have at least some of the founders still involved. What’s an example of a non-founder-led company that has cracked the code on innovation?

Brandeau: W.L. Gore. These guys are just unbelievably good. They’ve thought about how to keep the culture going, and what is it that makes people want to do a great job and think up great ideas.

They realize that you work best when you know the people around you. When your office building gets to be more than 250 people, you can’t know everybody, and you just become part of a blob. When an office becomes bigger than [250], they split it up into smaller pieces. That keeps it feeling like a small company, even though it’s big.