In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull highlights “the Braintrust” as a critical factor in the studio’s success. Rooted in the creative dynamics of the core Toy Story team, and beginning officially with Toy Story 2, the Braintrust is an ever-evolving advisory group that checks in on each Pixar film periodically over the course of production. When Catmull became the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, that team established a Braintrust as well.

Before each Braintrust meeting, the film’s director and producer screen their latest cut for the group — in the beginning, simple sequences of sketches with placeholder voices, progressing steadily to a fully animated final piece by the end of production. After the screening, the director and producer share how the film is coming along, noting any problems they’re facing. Then, typically kicking off with comments from Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, the Braintrust launches into an open, candid discussion what’s working and what isn’t.

Catmull notes two critical differences between a Braintrust meeting and the conventional studio approach of executives providing “notes” to a film’s creative team:

“The first is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources along the way (and in fact, when our films are screened in-house, all Pixar employees are asked to send notes), they particularly prize feedback from fellow directors and storytellers.

The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. This is crucial: the director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback. Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs. By removing from the Braintrust the power to mandate solutions, we affect the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.”

The Braintrust approach carries great lessons for brainstorming sessions large and small — notably committing to candor, focusing critiques on the ideas instead of the people, and putting corporate hierarchy aside. But to me, the key takeaway is how Pixar separated actual creation from group creative thinking. Rather than coming up with initial ideas and making key decisions as a group, as in conventional brainstorming, individual contributors and smaller teams do the core creative work, reserving larger group brainstorming for feedback.

This capitalizes on the relative strengths of brainstorming and heads-down work: Individual contributors and small groups can take the time and space necessary to think through challenging problems and solutions at length, without being swept along by the dynamics of group discussions, which are often dominated by the loudest voices and the first ideas to surface. But then, once they’ve made some progress, those small teams can tap into the fresh perspectives of a larger group, who provides the fuel to drive the work forward.

 

Photo uploaded to Flickr by Loren Javier, some rights reserved