For all of my talk about the leaders of thriving companies who did stupid things because they’d failed to pay attention, I discovered that, during the making of Toy Story, I had completely missed something that was threatening to undo us. And I’d missed it even though I thought I’d been paying attention.
Throughout the making of the movie, I had seen my job, in large part, as minding the internal and external dynamics that could divert us from our goal. I was determined that Pixar not make the same mistakes I’d watched other Silicon Valley companies make. To that end, I’d made a point of being accessible to our employees, wandering into people’s offices to check in and see what was going on. John Lasseter1 and I had very conscientiously tried to make sure that everyone at Pixar had a voice, that every job and every employee was treated with respect. I truly believed that self-assessment and constructive criticism had to occur at all levels of a company, and I had tried my best to walk that talk.
Now, though, as we assembled the crew to work on A Bug’s Life, I discovered we’d completely missed a serious, ongoing rift between our creative and production departments. In short, production managers told me that working on Toy Story had been a nightmare. They felt disrespected and marginalized—like second-class citizens. And while they were gratified by Toy Story’s success, they were very reluctant to sign on to work on another film at Pixar.
If there was one thing we prided ourselves on at Pixar, it was making sure that Pixar’s artists and technical people treated each other as equals, and I had assumed that same mutual respect would be afforded to those who managed the productions. I had assumed wrong. Sure enough, when I checked with the artists and technical staff, they did believe that production managers were second class and that they impeded—not facilitated—good filmmaking by overcontrolling the process, by micromanaging. Production managers, the folks I consulted told me, were just sand in the gears.
My total ignorance of this dynamic caught me by surprise. My door had always been open! I’d assumed that would guarantee me a place in the loop, at least when it came to major sources of tension, like this. Not a single production manager had dropped by to express frustration or make a suggestion in the five years we worked on Toy Story. Why was that? It took some digging to figure it out.
For me, this discovery was bracing. Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. This would be the idea—the challenge— around which I would build my new sense of purpose.
Because making a movie involves hundreds of people, a chain of command is essential. But in this case, we had made the mistake of confusing the communication structure with the organizational structure. Of course an animator should be able to talk to a modeler directly, without first talking with her manager. So we gathered the company together and said that going forward, anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand. Communication would no longer have to go through hierarchical channels. The exchange of information was key to our business, of course, but I believed that it could—and frequently should—happen out of order, without people getting bent out of shape. People talking directly to one another and then letting the manager find out later was more efficient than trying to make sure that everything happened in the “right” order and through the “proper” channels.
Improvement didn’t happen overnight. But by the time we finished A Bug’s Life, the production managers were no longer seen as impediments to creative progress but as peers—as first-class citizens. We had become better.