This post originally appeared at The Var Guy
Successful companies are the ones that let—no, encourage—their employees to fail. It’s what Pixar does, and there’s no arguing the successes it’s had.
Such was the tenor of the conversation between Bob Safian, editor in chief of FastCompany, and Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, during the Wednesday keynote discussion at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2015.
“There is a real palpable danger around failure,” Catmull said. “It’s impossible for people to emotionally separate both the negative and the positive meanings of failure.”
Positive failure enables people to view the experience with more perspective, ultimately regarding it as a lesson learned. But negative failure carries baggage—feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, depression—that does more harm than good.
“Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new,” he said. “If you’re able to realize [positive failure and negative failure] are two different things, you can separate the emotion from it. They have both meanings, and if people are not aware of them they will fall back to the negative meaning. But if you allow them to fail, you turn it into a learning experience.”
Companies, he said, too often focus on failure as a negative, which leads to an unhappy and ultimately less productive workforce.
“You need to allow people to make mistakes,” he said.
Catmull noted he has said every movie Pixar has made “sucked at the beginning.”
“If things don’t suck at the beginning, you’re almost done,” which stems the creative process. “Most times, though, it doesn't work.”
Too often, he said, management judges a team by the ideas it has, which is wrong. At Pixar, “our measure of the team isn’t the output, it’s the spirit. If they are having a good time and working hard, they also know it sucks and they will make the changes.
“The only time we have failure is when the team falls apart,” because of negative failure and negative judgment.
Catmull recalled taking his management style to Disney, which went through a long spate of animated movie failures before Catmull joined the organization.
“Because they had failed they were open to a different way of thinking about things. We got rid of ‘there’s a right way of doing things.’ The notion there had been ‘feed the beast.’ It doesn’t have a negative connotation, but it’s where the bulk of the costs are and the most revenue—it’s production. So we told them not to confuse the creative front end with production.”
The result was a string of hits including "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," to name a few. Along the way, Catmull noted, a few corporate concepts ended up by the side of the road.
“We decided it is better to fix problems than to try and prevent them all. Some corporate policies are put into place to prevent errors. But often they end up dragging things out,” he said.
Rather, companies should encourage their employees to do what they believe is best for the company, even if sometimes its goes against corporate policy.
“Zero errors is meaningful in some places, such as aircraft industry or medical industry or financial or manufacturing,” he continued. “It’s an easy concept there. But life is not like that. The concept of zero errors gets in the way of thinking how to get there creatively.”