ImageI ran into a FastCompany article this week on Pixar’s Braintrust. This was an excerpt from Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Since even Pixar’s worst performing releases were better than many of the best releases from other studios, I thought the excerpt might have something beneficial to those of us in creative endeavors. And I was not wrong. Here is the opening paragraph:

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

Two of the big takeaways I got from the article are:

  1. Start from the premise that first efforts invariably suck. No matter how good the initial inspiration, the initial execution always sucks.
  2. No matter the project, eventually participants get lost. Candor is necessary in order to move to clarity.

As designers, we invest a bit of who we are in our work. So naturally, we feel a sense of ownership and maybe even a little pride at the brilliant idea we’ve come up with. So when we face the brutal honesty of candid feedback, we are sometimes discouraged if not a little miffed. According to Catmull, ALL initial ideas suck on first execution. If we start from this premise, then we are less likely to let our feelings get hurt when we seek honest feedback on our early efforts.

This is one advantage to the successive approximation model of development. It begins with the premise that first efforts are tentative and the expectation is that they will be improved on subsequent revisions. I like this approach because it provides me with a healthy way to process feedback.

The second lesson is that no matter how good I am or how good the project is or how stellar the leadership on the team may be, they will WITHOUT FAIL get lost. It may be tall grass. It may be meticulous attention to minutia. It may be overwhelming administration. It may be the unending backlog of recommended edits. There seems to be no end to the reasons why the project bogs down. But it does. The function of the Braintrust is to break the log jam and get things moving again. In essence, candor brings clarity.

So how do we create or foster a Braintrust? Here are their points:

  • Appoint people who have a deep understanding of the subject.
  • The Braintrust has no authority – it’s just a collection of informed opinions and ultimate responsibility rests with the project team or director.
  • The Braintrust’s job is to provide insight into sources of problems, not solutions. (I really love this one because the assumption is that the creative individual or team is fully equipped to come up with more and better solutions than the Brainstrust can on its own – what a powerful form of affirmation!)
  • Headline Braintrust findings.

While a Braintrust session may be a painful experience, I find it much less painful than the alternative: