Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Pixar's Lessons for Project Communication & Collaboration

Pixar's Lessons for Project Communication & Collaboration

By Dennis D. McDonald

Ed Catmull’s Building a sense of purpose at Pixar discusses the creation of an “…open and sustainable creative culture.” This book excerpt also has relevance to promoting communication and collaboration among the staff and stakeholders of large or complex projects.

Catmull talks about the unnoticed gulf between “creative” and “production” staff at Pixar that developed during the five years devoted to bringing the first Toy Story movie to the screen.

Part of this frustration, he says, was based on the traditional nature of how movies are produced in Hollywood. Freelancers gather for the duration, do their thing, and then they go their separate ways. Energy spent complaining about other staff or management is downplayed during the production schedule since it might harm one’s chances to be hired on to another production in the future.

There are some similarities here to project management especially if you are a consultant and frequently go from project to project or from client to client. It’s not unusual to finally get to the point on a consulting project where think you understand the culture of the client — and then it’s time to move on. You learn to live with this. 

What really struck me about Catmull’s piece was his recognition that management at Pixar needed to intervene to get people to know that they could communicate directly with whoever they needed to communicate with regardless of which organizational silo they were working in. Modern communication tools make it simple and easy to communicate with anyone in an enterprise regardless of silo or which box you occupy in a traditional org chart. Having to channel communication hierarchically, as Catmull points out, is a real communication killer that impacts not only communication effectiveness but also innovation potential and self-esteem.

Anyone who has worked in an organization knows that, just because the boss says something is so doesn’t make it so. Change takes time especially if it means breaking down ingrained habits about formal and informal communication barriers. Catmull recognized this at Pixar and took leadership action.

This also got me thinking about how much structure and formalism you need in project related communication and collaboration. There are scores of software tools available to the project manager ranging from general-purpose schedule and resource management software to highly specialized modeling and testing tools. Some explicitly incorporate collaboration and communication functions while others assume reliance on existing corporate resources.

Increasingly I’m of the opinion that, while systems that add communication functionality to project tools can make great deal of sense in some circumstances, what’s more important is to enable staff and stakeholders to use the communication tools they’re comfortable with using. Even more important — and this relates back to what Catmull  says – is helping people to communicate freely and effectively with the people they need to communicate with. If that means printing a report out on paper so top management can sit around the conference table reviewing it, instead of making sure everyone has access to the same online report at the same time, so be it. Using a particular tool or a particular technology is, after all, less important than getting the job done. (I discuss some of these points in an interview with Software Advice, a company that reviews project management software, reported in 3 Unexpected Hacks on Common Collaboration Tools.)

I say this having spent a career in the tech industry dealing with databases, electronic publishing, content and document management, software development, and statistical research. I’m increasingly of the mind that, given the multitude of tools now available for gathering, managing, and sharing data, it’s more important than ever to stand back and provide the means of communication to trusted people; help them decide which communication channels are most appropriate to the task at hand. If that means relying more on group chat or messaging then on phone calls or meetings, so be it. 

It’s management’s job to make sure that staff and stakeholders know what is expected of them. Just throwing tools at the problem isn’t enough. Management also has to establish and communicate expectations around project objectives; how the tools are used should follow from the objectives, not lead.

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Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald

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