The Braintrust: How Pixar Fosters Candor Among Colleagues

April 8, 2019 Amy C. Edmondson


The following is an excerpt from The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson. (c)  2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc​

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Making Candor Real 

If you were over the age of three in 1995, chances are you were aware—or would soon become aware— of a movie called Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film released by a company named Pixar. That year, Toy Story would become the highest grossing film and Pixar the largest initial public offering.The rest, as they say, is history. Pixar Animation Studios has since produced 19 feature films, all of which have been commercial and critical triumphs. This is a remarkable statement in an industry where hits are prized but rare, and a series of hits without fail from a single company is all but unheard of. How do they do it? Through leadership that creates the conditions where both creativity and criticism can flourish. Pixar may be in the business of creating and animating stories, but the way the company works offers lessons about psychological safety that, much like their movies, are universal. 

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull credits the studio’s success, in part, to candor. His definition of candor as forthrightness or frankness and his insight that we associate the word “candor” with truth-telling and a lack of reserve support psychological safety’s tenets. (Catmull, E. & Wallace, A. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.) When candor is part of a workplace culture, people don’t feel silenced. They don’t keep their thoughts to themselves. They say what’s on their minds and share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Ideally, they laugh together and speak noisily. Catmull encourages candor by looking for ways to institutionalize it in the organization most notably, in what Pixar calls its “Braintrust.” 

A small group that meets every few months or so to assess a movie in process, provide candid feedback to the director, and help solve creative problems, the Braintrust was launched in 1999, when Pixar was rushing to save Toy Story 2, which had gone off the rails. The Braintrust’s recipe is fairly simple: a group of directors and storytellers watches an early run of the movie together, eats lunch together, and then provides feedback to the director about what they think worked and what did not. But the recipe’s key ingredient is candor. And candor, though simple, is never easy. 

Embracing the Bad on the Journey to Good 

As Catmull candidly admits, “ . . . early on, all of our movies suck.” In other words, it would have been easy to make Toy Story a movie about the secret life of toys that was sappy and boring. But the creative process, innately iterative, relies on feedback that is truly honest. If the people in the Braintrust room had murmured words of polite praise for early screenings rather than feeling safe enough to candidly say what they felt was wrong, missing, or unclear or made no sense, chances are that Toy Story and Toy Story 2 would not have soared into the cinematic stratosphere. 

Pixar’s Braintrust has rules. First, feedback must be constructive and about the project, not the person. Similarly, the filmmaker cannot be defensive or take criticism personally and must be ready to hear the truth. Second, the comments are suggestions, not prescriptions. There are no mandates, top-down or otherwise; the director is ultimately the one responsible for the movie and can take or leave solutions offered. Third, candid feedback is not a “gotcha” but must come from a place of empathy. It helps that the directors have often already gone through the process themselves. Praise and appreciation, especially for the director’s vision and ambition, are doled out in heaping measures. Catmull, again: “The Braintrust is benevolent. It wants to help. And it has no selfish agenda.” The Braintrust, seen as a neutral and free-floating “it” rather than as a fearsome “them,” is perceived as more than the sum of its individual members. When people feel psychologically safe enough to contribute insight, opinion, or suggestion, the knowledge in the room thereby increases exponentially. This is because individual observations and suggestions build on each other, taking new shape and creating new value, especially compared to what happens when individual feedback is collected separately. 

Braintrusts—groups of people with a shared agenda who offer candid feedback to their peers are subject to individual personalities and chemistries. In other words, they can easily go off the rails if the process isn’t well led. To be effective, managers have to monitor dynamics continually over time. It helps enormously if people respect each other’s expertise and trust each other’s opinions. Pixar director Andrew Stanton offers advice for how to choose people for an effective feedback group. They must, he says, “make you think smarter and put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.” Stanton’s point about having people around who make us “think smarter” gets to the heart of why psychological safety is essential to innovation and progress. We can only think smarter if others in the room speak their minds. 

 The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson. (c)  2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Catmull, E. & Wallace, A. 2013: 90, 95, 105

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