Pixar’s Guide to Product Management

One of the hardest things about product management is dealing with the uncertainty of the job — when there’s no clear path forward and you have to make a decision. Another challenge is how to get everyone on board with your roadmap — when you have 3 different opinions and need to bring everyone together toward a common goal. This kind of uncertainty is also rife in the movie businesses. In the Book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull, Pixar’s CEO talks how Pixar deals with creativity and ambiguity.

Though it looks straightforward at the end of the day, Pixar goes through a highly iterative process to make their movies. For example, the movie UP, in its final form, is a heartwarming movie about a friendship about an old man and a young child. The first iteration looked very different:

In the first version, there was a castle floating in the sky, completely unconnected to the world below. In this castle lived a king and his two sons, who were each vying to inherit the kingdom. The sons were opposites—they couldn’t stand each other. One day, they both fell to earth. As they wandered around, trying to get back to their castle in the sky, they came across a tall bird who helped them understand each other.

The people at Pixar (being movie people) tell much better stories about how to deal with uncertainty and collaboration. I thought it might be useful to take quotes from Creativity Inc. and frame them in terms  of product management.

ON UNCERTAINTY

Product Management is Taking Advantage of Uncertainty (Ed Catmull): Uncertainty can make us uncomfortable. We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead to who-knows-where. That requires us to step up to the boundary of what we know and what we don’t know. While we all have the potential to be creative, some people hang back, while others forge ahead. What are the tools they use that lead them toward the new? Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.

Product Management is Driving Through the Uncertainty: Pete Docter compares directing to running through a long tunnel having no idea how long it will last but trusting that he will eventually come out, intact, at the other end. “There’s a really scary point in the middle where it’s just dark,” he says. “There’s no light from where you came in and there’s no light at the other end; all you can do is keep going. And then you start to see a little light and then a little more light and then, suddenly, you’re out in the bright sun.”

Product Management is Putting the Pieces Together as You Go: Bob Peterson described one of Andrew Stanton’s models this way. “You’re digging away, and you don’t know what dinosaur you’re digging for. Then, you reveal a little bit of it. And you may be digging in two different places at once and you think what you have is one thing, but as you go farther and farther, blindly digging, it starts revealing itself. Once you start getting a glimpse of it, you know how better to dig.”

Product Management is Climbing a Mountain: Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, … compares writing a screenplay to climbing a mountain blindfolded. “The first trick,” he likes to say, “is to find the mountain.” In other words, you must feel your way, letting the mountain reveal itself to you. And notably, he says, climbing a mountain doesn’t necessarily mean ascending. Sometimes you hike up for a while, feeling good, only to be forced back down into a crevasse before clawing your way out again. And there is no way of knowing where the crevasses will be.

Product Management is Clarifying Uncertainty: When mediating between two groups who aren’t communicating well, for example, Lindsey feigns confusion. “You say, ‘You know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand. I’m sorry I’m slowing you down here with all my silly questions, but could you just explain to me one more time what that means? Just break it down for me like I’m a two-year-old.’ ”

ON COLLABORATION

Product Management is Changing Colors: Lindsey Collins, a producer who has worked with Andrew on several films, imagines herself as a chameleon who can change her colors depending on which constituency she’s dealing with. The goal is not to be fake or curry favor but to be whatever person is needed in the moment. “In my job, sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m a follower; sometimes I run the room and sometimes I say nothing and let the room run itself,” she says.

Product Management is Keeping Everything In Balance: One of our producers, John Walker, stays calm by imagining his very taxing job as holding a giant upside-down pyramid in his palm by its pointy tip. “I’m always looking up, trying to balance it,” he says. “Are there too many people on this side or that side? In my job, I do two things, fundamentally: artist management and cost control. Both depend on hundreds of interactions that are happening above me, up in the fat end of the pyramid. And I have to be okay with the fact that I don’t understand a freaking thing that’s going on half the time—and that that is the magic. The trick, always, is keeping the pyramid in balance.”

Product Management is Bringing People Together: Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”

Product Management is Guiding a Flock of Sheep: When she’s not imagining herself in an elevator, Katherine pretends she’s a shepherd guiding a flock of sheep. Like Lindsey, she spends some time assessing the situation, figuring out the best way to guide her flock. “I’m going to lose a few sheep over the hill, and I have to go collect them,” she says. “I’m going to have to run to the front at times, and I’m going to have to stay back at times. And somewhere in the middle of the flock, there is going to be a bunch of stuff going on that I can’t even see. And while I’m looking for the sheep that are lost, something else is going to happen that I’m not aiming my attention at. Also, I’m not entirely sure where we’re going. Over the hill? Back to the barn? Eventually, I know we will get there, but it can be very, very slow. You know, a car crosses the road, and the sheep are all in the way. I’m looking at my watch going, ‘Oh, my God, sheep, move already!’ But the sheep are going to move how they move, and we can try to control them as best we can, but what we really want to do is pay attention to the general direction they’re heading and try to steer a little bit.”