The IT Manager’s Dilemma: Smart People Or Good Ideas?

by drjim on January 21, 2009

Pixar Can Teach IT Leaders A Lot About Selecting Staff For Teams

Pixar Can Teach IT Leaders A Lot About Selecting Staff For Teams

When an IT manager is given an assignment to complete a project, who should he/she want to have on their team? Within the world of IT, there are many different types of people that you can choose from, but all too often it comes down choosing people who are as smart as (or less) that you or choosing people who are smarter than you are. What should an IT manager do?

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar and he is currently the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios (they merged just awhile ago). He wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he discussed how managers at Pixar deal with this problem.

Catmull is a firm believer that you really need to have the smartest people possible on your team – even if they are smarter than you are. In fact, Catmull is a firm believer that smart people are even more important than good ideas.

All of Pixar’s films have been big commercial successes. However, there have been projects that have almost caused the company to fail. It’s from these stories that Catmull has become convinced that having smart people on your team is a necessity.

Pixar’s first big successful film was called Toy Story. After this hit, the creative team that made it got busy on Pixar’s next film that was to be called A Bug’s Life. Pixar also wanted to make a follow-up film to Toy Story which would be called Toy Story 2. Because the original creative team was busy, a second creative team was assembled to mange this project.

Originally Disney who was distributing Pixar’s films at the time wanted Toy Story 2 to be a direct-to-video release which meant that both the cost and the quality could be lower. However, Pixar decided that having two different standards for quality would be bad for the studio’s morale and so Disney was convinced to make it a full theatrical release.

The way that you make an animated movie is to create storyboards which are crude pencil sketches of the movie’s action and mate them with dialogue and temporary music. The result of this is called a story reel. As the team worked on Toy Story 2, these story reels were not improving like they should have been.

The reasons for this were many. The Directors and the Producers were not able to work together in order to meet the challenges that they were facing. One key point to realize is that there was nothing wrong with the story – everyone was very happy with the initial story. It’s just that the team was having problems turning it into a compelling movie.

In the end, Toy Story 2 was saved and went on to be a big commercial success for Pixar. How was this done? The original creative team was able to wrap up their work on A Bug’s Life and they swooped in to save the day. The specific things that they did changed it from a ho-hum movie to an interesting one.

All Disney released movies have a happy ending; so this was never in doubt in the work that the original creative team had put together. The new creative team took this, tore it apart, and inserted several points in which a happy outcome was by no means guaranteed. This made the movie much more interesting.

Pixar’s lessons from this project should resonate with IT leaders everywhere. Catmull says that the most important of these lessons “…is that if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, then they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.”

The other lesson that IT Leaders need to learn from Pixar is that every IT department needs to have only one quality bar by which to measure each project. You need to be able to communicate to the entire department that it is unacceptable to have some ok projects as well as great projects. This is how you move beyond lip service for quality…

When you are pulling together a team for a project, are you willing to choose the best people for the project? How do you feel about having people who are smarter than you on a project? Does this cause friction? Does your IT department grade every project when it’s done? Are all projects of the same quality? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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