Top 5 Ideas from Pixar for Museum Professionals

Contributed by Charity M. Counts, Project Manager, the Museum Playbook Collective

The groundbreaking book Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, and Amy Wallace, details how embracing open dialogue, risk and even failure at Pixar creates a work environment where creativity thrives and innovation is possible.

I’ve spent the last two years testing ways museum professionals can apply Pixar’s methods and philosophy to exhibits, programs, marketing and more. Here are my top five tried and tested ideas.

1. Invite candid feedback from everyone – no strings attached – with a Braintrust.

“Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out.”

“Early on, [all Pixar] movies suck,” writes Catmull. One step toward developing a winning story involves a Braintrust. In these milestone meetings, Pixar writers and directors share their stories, seek gut reactions, and engage others in solving problems. Ground rules are essential – each participant gives up their authority (so making their changes isn’t mandatory) and everyone must speak with candor.

Try it! The next time your gallery program script or exhibit project starts to gel, take a minute to bring other artists, inventors, and storytellers into the fold for candid feedback. You’ll be surprised at how fun the conversation can be and how amazing the resulting product is.

2. Let your teams risk failure in their efforts to innovate.

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others.
Show early and show often.”

Catmull’s scientific background not only made him accepting of failure but appreciative of it. Even though museums promote the scientific method to visitors as a universal method for solving problems, we don’t allow its principles to influence our work. For decades, museums have tried to address audience diversity and cultural relevance issues, with few solutions coming forward. It may be time to take some risks.

Try it! Allocate resources to experimentation (roughly 3-5% of time and money) and use exhibit prototyping techniques industry-wide, from marketing campaigns to new programs. Try a pop-up testing space and target specific audiences for feedback. Use social media to test marketing messages and ad concepts.

3. Let your team take ownership of solving process problems with a “Notes Day.”

“What is the point of hiring smart people… if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?”

During Notes Day, Pixar shuts down operations and asks employees to give feedback anonymously. Then employees take ownership, working as teams throughout the day to develop solutions to problems from communication to production. It is proactive and engaging.

Try it! At the end of your next exhibit project, ask “what worked?” and “what didn’t?” with a simple message box. Pull teams together to analyze the feedback, identify opportunities to change things that didn’t work, and celebrate the things that did.

4.  Invite unique solutions to problems by engaging staff closest to the challenge.

“The first conclusions we draw from our successes and failures are typically wrong.”

Catmull shares a story about a visual effects manager who offered an idea to reduce costs on one project (the movie “Up”) based on her experiences as a production artist. Because she had a perspective different from the rest of the management team, she brought an idea they wouldn’t have generated alone.

Try it! Engage frontline and production staff when your leadership team is struggling to solve a problem. During strategic planning, invite input and feedback on goals and objectives from individuals working in those areas.

5. Offer training that builds creativity and creative expression, not just “work-related skills.”

“Pixar University helps reinforce the mind-set that we’re all learning and it’s fun to learn together.”

Although not emphasized in Creativity, Inc., there are many opportunities for cross-training at Pixar. There, employees can try screenplay writing, sculpting, yoga, and drawing (among many other options).

Try it! Encourage your staff to develop a creative renewal plan for the year with a mix of activities related and unrelated to the field, and let them organize those day trips, classes, and tours for the whole team.