Software Development Lessons from the Movie Industry

Which is more important: Good People or Good Ideas?

The following video of a talk by Edwin Catmull, Ph.D., President of Pixar, is loaded with insights from the Movie Industry (specifically Pixar Animation Studios) that are applicable to those of us in Software Development – in fact, applicable to those of us in any team-oriented endeavor of any complexity. Every technologist who works on a team should listen to the talk. Then listen again. Any place where he talks about movies, substitute Software Development (or your team-oriented, complex vocation of choice) and think about how it applies to you.

Dr. Catmull ultimately answers the question of which is more critical: good people or good ideas? In doing so, he concludes unequivocally that People are more important, but doesn’t stop there – it is really those People on Effective Teams that makes the difference.  He also peppers the talk with interesting insights, such as competitors (in all industries) are always copying ideas – but often they copy the wrong ones – they tend to copy only ideas that were previously well executed (and, thus, usually successful), but should perhaps pay more attention to the far more numerous good ideas that were poorly executed.

Successful products have got thousands of ideas. There’s all sorts of things necessary for it to be successful. And you have to get most of them right to do it. That’s why you need a team that works well together.
-Ed Catmull, Ph.D., President, Pixar Animation Studios

I stumbled across the video when reading a post by Jeff Atwood admonishing us to Cultivate Teams, Not Ideas; Jeff’s post is also worth a close read.

Notes and Quotes

Notes I took of Ed Catmull’s illuminating talk follow – mostly direct quotes (prefaced with where in the video it occurs):

  • @ 10:45 “We had confused the orgizational structure with the communication structure – a very common thing that happens to a lot of companies. They are different.”
  • @ 13:30 “success hides problems
  • @ 15:25 (on doing “A” bug’s life and “B” toy story/direct-to-video) “We shouldn’t be thinking that it’s okay to be doing something that isn’t great.” (so they stopped the non-great ones)
  • @ 21:55 “What’s the central problem, finding good ideas or finding good people?” – answer is very clear:
  • @ 22:07 Teams are more important than ideas: “If you have a good idea and you give it to a mediocre group, they’ll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they’ll fix it, or they’ll throw it away and come up with something else.”
  • @ 22:27 “We think about ‘an idea’. When we think of ideas for movies, we think about ideas for products. And it’s usually thought of as some singular thing. But the reality is, these successful movies – as well as successful products – have got thousands of ideas. There’s all sorts of things necessary for it to be successful. And you have to get most of them right to do it. That’s why you need a team that works well together.
  • @ 23:49 On teams that function well together as a key competitive driver.”On the way we measure progress, is on how well that team gets together.”
  • @ 23:57 “The first time you do it, it’s a mess.”
  • @ 24:07 “The only failure is if you don’t learn from it – if you don’t progress. So the way you measure it, is this team functioning well together? And it’s a thing that’s never let us down. When that team functions well together they will succeed. When things are going wrong, they will fail.
  • @ 25:00 “People like to copy the wrong things.”
  • @ 25:25 “They always remake good movies. And rarely do they beat the good movie. But the fact is, there are thousands of movies out there that are actually great ideas, but are poorly executed. They should be remaking bad movies.”
  • @ 25:38 “How does it happen with products – the ones that do better are the ones just copy somebody else’s good product, they actually take the thing that’s going wrong and fix that. That’s the better idea.”
  • @ 25:52 “They could copy the technology, but they couldn’t copy the process we were using to come up with the story.”
  • @ 28:07 (on post-mortems) “Get a lot of facts about the process. When you put the facts up, and you are fact driven, it actually stimulates discussion. And it’s those discussions that are very valuable.”
  • @ 28:39 “Summarize a few of the things we’ve learned:
    1. Constant review
    2. It must be safe for people to tell the truth
    3. Communication should not mirror the organizational hierarchy
    4. People and how they function is more important than ideas
    5. Do not let success mask problems; do a deep assessment.”
  • @ 29:55 “Everybody says that the story is the most important thing, even if the story was drivel. It might be true – in fact, it is true – but it doesn’t effect behavior.”

2 thoughts on “Software Development Lessons from the Movie Industry

  1. Software Development Copmany

    Software development services are anticipated to serve businesses that are software outsourcing development and programming to Domestic & International market. Red Ball Infotech offers tailor made solutions to its clients to suit their needs that help them to lead in the market.

  2. Victoria

    Utopian? Not quite, but it’s certainly the best wackplore I’ve ever encountered in my long career.As a constant Apple (the company) watcher, I would have to say Pixar Animation Studios benefited from the philosophy of former owner, Steve Jobs. It might surprise some to learn Steve Jobs shares a lot of the same qualities of Walt Disney. Having worked for both, I’m uniquely qualified to make this observation.Although I loved Ed Catmull’s business ethic, I wonder how long this can be retained now that his company is tethered to a huge market driven corporation?


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