Backstage Interview: Respond to Problems in the Moment

How does your team learn from failure?


Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, candidly shares that even the best organizations don't always end up with the product they envisioned when they began. Challenges, failures and setbacks occur, but Ed says that one of his core leadership behaviors is to respond to problems in the moment.

Ed says he doesn't believe in absolutes; even when something fails, your team may have been doing a lot of things right. Conversely, even a success doesn't mean you did everything in the process right. That's one reason why Ed recommends taking a period of introspection; a time when people in the organization get together to reflect and consider what is working and what isn't, and how to implement changes to accomplish more of what's "right."

Listen as Ed shares timeless advice about how to respond to challenges and create meaningful organizational change. For more of Ed's insights, watch his change management interview questions and answers, with Seth Godin.

Well, I've seen a lot of companies, in fact you would say that Pixar is an example of this. Is the thing we started off with, is not what we ended up with. Now we had our secret desires and we did want to make a movie, but in fact we were making high-end, special purpose, hardware. And they were being used largely in the medical industry.

Through a whole number of events, it didn't turn out the way we started. We continually had to adjust and we lost money, we had all sorts of issues and problems and we ended up costing Steve a lot of money. But we responded to the problem at the time and I think that's the fundamental one. Is whatever the original goal was, you respond afresh in the moment.

There are things you hang on to which are your intents and your values, but the goals you hold lightly. You have them, but you don't let them become your master. They're just a guidepost for you, for when you learn something new, you've learned something new. You'd be foolish not to use what you have new.

So for me, it means that any company should have a period of introspection. You don't do it all the time, but every once in a while you step back and say, "What are we doing that's working and what isn't working?" And the worst thing that can happen is that a company judges itself based upon whether it's failed or succeeded. And if my product does well, what I'm doing is correct.

If it failed, what I'm doing is wrong. This is a first order analysis of what took place and it almost always wrong. In fact, if you succeed, there may be things that you don't see which contributed to it, and contributions which you just don't recognize. If you fail, you may have been doing a lot of things right, but missed a couple of things. Or you may have had bad timing or bad luck. You can't draw too many conclusions.

The introspection means you need to go back and re-question and dive deeper. Invite everybody in, in a safe way, to give their opinions. And if everybody feels safe, you will learn things you didn't know. You won't learn everything, but you will learn more. And it's that introspection which has to be made a part of any culture in order for it to make really good progress.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing fourteen consecutive #1 box office hits, which h...

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