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Pixar's Brain Trust is a case study for candor

Chapter 2 Candor and debate lead to creativity and innovation


We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested
—Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, describes how the highly successful film studios implement candor within their organization. While candor is a behavior that they value throughout the organization it’s application is most visible in a particular incarnation: “The Brain Trust”.

The Brain Trust is a group of experienced directors and storytellers that come together to review and provide feedback on an iteration of any new Pixar film. Catmull explains that every Pixar film “sucks” initially and that it is the job of the brain trust to identify the flaws and allow it to achieve greatness. Anyone familiar with Pixar’s track record will recognize that the process must have some merit. The Brain Trust helps the director of the film identify weak points, get initial audience feedback. Because a director is usually so deep into the detail of the project that he can’t see the wood for the trees, the Brain Trust allows him to see the big picture. According to Catmull, there are some key features that define the Brain Trust:

  • Trust: It is made up of experienced peers that are trusted and respected by the director.
  • Accountability: The brain trust has no authority, it does not attempt to fix problems or make prescriptive recommendations. All authority remains with the director.
  • Candor: described by Catmull as “Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love”
  • Constructive: It iteratively explores weak points and new directions, but it is a feedback system that is built on empathy. It builds up while it breaks down.
  • Openness: the director must be willing to hear the truth and let go of ideas that don’t work.
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