Pixar’s Ed Catmull Highlights Value of Post Mortems

The Annual Stanford Entrepreneurship Conference featured Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, as its keynote speaker. Ed gave a great presentation on lessons learned from structurally organizing a company for effective communication across its departments.

In the beginning, Ed believed they had created a very strong culture at Pixar. They had paired up programmers and animators as peers. Other companies had one group clearly dominant: either a technical culture or an animation culture. He believed that the artists, the technical people, and the production managers were all interacting well. He felt that it was a fun, energetic, and social work environment. Pixar’s open door policy of “necessary honesty” meant anyone could talk to anyone at anytime.

In actuality, this was far from the truth. After Toy Story’s great success, Ed called for a company post mortem. He discovered that there were major disconnects among different staff members. The artists and the technical people felt like the production managers got in the way and slowed down production. The production managers felt like they were treated as second class citizens.

Ed asked himself how he had missed these problems and came to the conclusion that Pixar’s success had masked them. Ed found out that the production managers put up with the situation because overall they loved working on a ground breaking project with a great leader. Ultimately if the project was not so productive and rewarding, he would have lost some valuable employees along the way. Ed key insight was that

Often, companies tend to focus on “what’s working” vs. trying to figure out “why is this not working?”

This is why the post mortem is so important. Pixar has incorporated the post mortem process at the end of every project. The challenge is getting each person to be completely honest and share intimate details about their experience. The post mortem is a grueling process that everyone hates. For the most part everyone is tired, burned out, and has no patience to reflect on everything that has gone wrong. The things that went well are usually obvious so they spend a majority of the time trying to figure out what needs improvement

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