What Google could learn from Pixar

By Peter Sims
August 10, 2010

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The following article originally appeared on HBR.org. Former venture capitalist Peter Sims is co-author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. His next book, Little Bets, will be published next spring. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Google has reached a pivotal moment in its history. What can it do to expand beyond its incredible core business, which is now reaching a more mature phase? For insight on how it can develop, let’s look to Pixar.

Pixar is as close to a constant learning organization as there is, with a proven ability to reinvent and a genuine cultural humility. Google’s founders could learn from Pixar’s founder and president Ed Catmull’s prolonged and determined efforts to counter the natural human reactions to success by aspiring to proactively (and honestly) seek-out and solve new problems constantly, recognizing that he doesn’t have all the answers on his own.

Despite an unbroken string of 11 blockbuster films, Catmull regularly says, “Success hides problems.” It’s an insight Google should acknowledge and act on. Google’s leadership admirably tolerates failure on side-projects (and big projects as well), but what Pixar has that Google does not is a culture where the fear of complacency is a strong motivator, where new problems are identified, discussed, and addressed openly and honestly, all of which requires humility.

As David Price describes in his superb The Pixar Touch, Pixar began its life as a computer hardware company. Price writes that Steve Jobs never expected Pixar to be a film company when he bought the company from George Lucas in 1986. Pixar was then the 45-person computer graphics group of Lucasfilms, led by Catmull, whose dream since graduate school had been to make a full-length digitally animated film. The group had developed the Pixar Image Computer, a computer graphics machine that produced high-end visual imaging (such as for MRIs). Jobs thought the technology had breakout potential when he bought it, yet the Pixar Image Computer never found a market.

Jobs also shrewdly allowed a tiny animation division, led by John Lasseter, a former animator from Disney, to make little bets on short animated films (and, later, TV commercials). Shorts would become the company’s vehicle to build the technical and storytelling expertise, as well as the credibility necessary to ultimately coproduce (with Disney) Toy Story in 1995, the first digitally animated feature film.

The 1980s were difficult for Pixar. Steve Jobs deserves enormous credit for his role in funding and driving the company. But, despite Pixar’s small wins with short films, success was far from guaranteed. During this period, Catmull was puzzled by why so many successful companies ultimately failed. “I’m thinking, ‘If we’re ever successful, how do I keep from falling into the traps these companies are falling into?” he recalled in a recent lecture at Stanford Business School.

Catmull watched as companies like Evans & Sutherland, a pioneering computer graphics company, and Silicon Graphics lost their lead. Like Google today, those companies had access to great talent and problems, yet somehow lost their edge and market lead. He studied Toyota the most. Today, Catmull sets the tone for a company culture that is unusually open and honest, resembling Toyota’s aspiration of constant improvement. (Toyota’s current challenges aside, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is another serious student of Toyota and its processes). Catmull constantly and proactively solicits feedback from Pixar employees, who say that the mentality of constant improvement flows throughout the company.

As with Toyota’s methods, what interests Catmull the most, and appears to motivate his actions, is to constantly identify and solve new problems. When Catmull gives a public speech or lecture, what’s most noticeable is that he talks about the problems that Pixar has encountered and the mistakes that he has made. Pixar has, for example, nearly burned-out its employees on numerous occasions. Like every organization, there are also pockets of the company that are extremely resistant to change.

Catmull freely acknowledges through his words and deeds that doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. When delivering a lecture at Stanford’s Computer Science department in April, he compared trying to build a successful lasting company to a constant iterative creative process. “There is a lot about this process which I find mystifying still,” he said, “There’s certain things that I think we’ve got right and certain things we’ve got wrong.”

Outsiders are routinely surprised by Pixar’s cultural honesty and willingness to be challenged. When Stanford professors Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao interviewed Pixar director Brad Bird with Allen Webb, Bird recounted being recruited to Pixar:

“Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter said, in effect, ‘The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency, feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.’ For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, ‘Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up.’ When do you run into that?”

Ed Catmull and Pixar have the potential to one-day be the Toyota of American business, a role model for building a constant learning organization. It’s a striking model for Google. What do you think? Is Pixar a good role model company for Google and its founders these days? What advice would you give Google executives at this pivotal inflection point?

10 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Google is simply a “search engine” company with tons of cash and no new ideas on how to best use it. The Android product is software that was purchased from a small California start-up and provides no real revenue. The Android software is nothing more than a PR tool.

Google will soon face a ton of lawsuits for invasion of privacy. This “fake” deal with Verizon over privacy is simply a ploy to appear to be concerned about people’s privacy as Google drives thru neighborhoods (Street View) capturing people’s wi-fi data. When you use gmail, google reads all of your messages so that they can sell you a product based on the topic of your email.

Google’s “lack” of a true privacy policy is the reason the government of South Korea raided their offices this week taking seizing their wi-fi equipment because google was very irresponsible with regards to the data collected.

I expect to see more and more backlashes from Google’s disrespect for privacy starting to gain traction.

My advice to Google management is to stop trying to please Wallstreet and do the right thing with regards to respecting people’s privacy.

Google is “NOT” Pixar. Pixar had Steve, “the bully” Jobs feeding them ideas and kicking them in the but when they failed to execute.

Google needs to spin-off a new team of innovators to find the “next big thing.”

For investors, I say that Google is a “$250″ stock that is overhyped.

Posted by Jones22 | Report as abusive

Listen Google, ya young whipper-snapper. Don’t be gettin’ too big for yer ‘britches, ya hear? ;-)

Posted by mjimih | Report as abusive

Is this a send up of something I don’t get? This is an utterly inept comparison. Pixar is a company that has only ever had success in one major line of business, just like google. And it is currently just a part of a part (Disney animation) of a part (Disney’s production arm) of a conglomerate (the Disney corporation as a whole, which is a sprawling giant including many things besides the Disney branded operations).

Posted by Osomec | Report as abusive

Isn’t it because of listening to users that brought Google success? How people search, communicate, locate, etc. As a Google user, I see that they do continuously improve the people’s experience in search and communication, among others. Resounding success may make them take the back seat a little but I doubt they are anywhere near complacent. R&D must be cooking up something (big).

Posted by cdreuters | Report as abusive

As we write in our book on Pixar’s culture – Innovate the Pixar Way – Pixar is a place where working together works. “Artists and geeks” team up and collaborate. As Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith told us, “The artistically creative people like John Lasseter and the animation staff are helpless without the technically creative people. They can’t do it, and they know it. So the only thing that works is to have those two groups of people work hand in hand, almost literally side by side…and the only way that can happen is with mutual respect and dignity on all sides. I’ve never been in another place that had it.” In all of our years of consulting, we have seen VERY few places that practive Pixar-style collaboration!

Posted by dreamovations | Report as abusive

To think that Google is at some kind of life altering “turning point” may be incorrect. Google’s fascinating strategic opportunity is that there may not ever be an end to the Knowledge-Creation business. One useful analogy to the Google model dates back nearly to the Renaissance: The encyclopedia business. Clearly creating encyclopedias has not lost its customer-pulling potential, nor will it. So Google’s challenge remains the same: find the next area of human knowledge that needs to be consolidated. This is the same challenge that it has always faced, and may be amenable to its existing continual experimentation process.

Posted by SuperMike1661 | Report as abusive

I mean just take for example the rapidly arriving Googlevatin of being able to text-search video sound tracks. Do we think that this will not bump revenue in multiple increments?

Posted by SuperMike1661 | Report as abusive

My Grandama used to say; “if it works, dont fix it”. And so far google is working fine. We don want a bunch of “corporate wise assed salesman” to come and foul up something that it has been kep simple.

Next thing you know if Google gets involve with” all knowing- whatever the name was-” Is that they be charging for its use. No thank you, google is working fine as it is, no need fixing

Posted by lugvonfalk | Report as abusive

[...] not Pixar so much, as it is a corporate culture of constant improvement.  Much like Toyota has perfected and Amazon implements and Pixar strives for.  It doesn’t [...]

Ok, let’s look hard now: Pixar should look to Google for direction.

Another example is the language translation capability that Google is rapidly evolving. This science/magic will not only lead to more revenue, but it will change the world. When the “universal translator” was introduced on US television 40 years ago by Gene Roddenberry, it seemed like a dream… NOW clearly coming true! “google is only a search engine company with too much money”. Is Pixar changing the world? Peter Sims reputation is on the line here… and now. Why would HBR publish such obviously questionable thinking? Someone should answer this question… now.

The facts say otherwise.

Posted by SuperMike1661 | Report as abusive

to reuters: i thought u guys wanted to “get it on”?? u could host some really exciting discussions here but u seem to be constraining urselves. i can help… no charge in this limited case.

http://www.futureknowledge.biz is me

Posted by SuperMike1661 | Report as abusive