How to Cultivate Creative Collaboration

Updated: Sep 23

Pixar has never disappointed. With just over 20 feature-length films released in the past 25 years, each film has earned more than $300 million in worldwide revenue. What is the key to Pixar’s success? According to Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and author of Creativity, Inc., it’s building creative teams.

Quoting from his book, Catmull states that “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” In order to be a strong global leader, one needs to understand how to build and cultivate a brilliant team. Below are a few tips to help.


From the very beginning, Pixar built large, open workspaces and encouraged employees to bring in photos, knick-knacks, and other decorations to inspire self-expression and cultivate collaboration. Strong teams are built when individuals can be themselves, are praised for the unique talent and value they bring, and are comfortable expressing themselves with those around them. Although not all teams need to change their floor plans to accomplish this, finding small ways to help a team feel connected and valued will improve collaboration.


After an extensive study, Google came to the same conclusion. By analyzing 180 teams across the company, they determined that the mix of personalities didn’t make a significant difference in team performance. What really mattered is what they now call “psychological safety.” If everyone contributes equally and feels like their emotions are respected, the team will succeed.


Cultivate Effective Communication


Self-expression and collaboration within a team won’t be effective unless the leader communicates effectively and frequently. In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent a memo to the entire company explaining a new company rule. In order to be more united as a team, Marissa asked that everyone working from home move their workspace back to the company office. Rather than bringing the company together, this rule led to contention and debate.

Senior management often communicated different stories about how flexible the company would be with this policy. Those who had accepted their position because they knew it would allow them to work remotely when needed felt like they had been lied to. Others, even those not directly impacted, also became infuriated simply because of the tone and tactics used by the company to communicate the news. All of the effort to make a team collaborate better is not worth it unless it’s coupled with effective communication.


Returning to Pixar and Creativity, Inc., another important aspect of team building is eliminating unnecessary hierarchy to allow every team member to lead through successes and failures. When Toy Story 2 was nearing the end of production, one employee noticed pieces of the story slowly disappear from the screen before his eyes—someone had accidentally entered the sequence of keystrokes that wipes out all data. Taking initiative, he called another employee and ordered him to pull the plug immediately, hoping to stop the destruction of the story. Despite these efforts, about 90% of the film was lost.

After turning to the backup system and discovering it wasn’t working properly, everyone thought years of hard work was simply gone. Thankfully, rather than only informing individuals up a hierarchy, everyone was quickly apprised of the situation. A team member who had been allowed to work from home after the birth of one of her children remembered that she had a backup at her house. Because the whole team was involved and employees felt like they could take their own initiative, the crisis was resolved. As illustrated in this story, good leaders will rely on the talent and knowledge of everyone on the team, recognizing that just because they have the highest title doesn’t mean they have all the answers.


Conclusion


Building a strong, collaborative team is extremely important for every global business leader. Although it’s often challenging, there are simple things that help. Support personal expression and interaction, communicate often and tactfully, and encourage every member to contribute like they were in charge. These simple solutions form teams that can transform mediocre ideas and find solutions to problems that seem impossible to solve.

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