Google has reached a pivotal moment in its history. What can it do to expand beyond its incredible core business, which is now reaching a more mature phase? For insight on how it can develop, let’s look to Pixar.
Pixar is as close to a constant learning organization as there is, with a proven ability to reinvent and a genuine cultural humility. Google’s founders could learn from Pixar’s founder and president Ed Catmull’s prolonged and determined efforts to counter the natural human reactions to success by aspiring to proactively (and honestly) seek-out and solve new problems constantly, recognizing that he doesn’t have all the answers on his own.
Despite an unbroken string of 11 blockbuster films, Catmull regularly says, “Success hides problems.” It’s an insight Google should acknowledge and act on. Google’s leadership admirably tolerates failure on side-projects (and big projects as well), but what Pixar has that Google does not is a culture where the fear of complacency is a strong motivator, where new problems are identified, discussed, and addressed openly and honestly, all of which requires humility.
As David Price describes in his superb The Pixar Touch, Pixar began its life as a computer hardware company. Price writes that Steve Jobs never expected Pixar to be a film company when he bought the company from George Lucas in 1986. Pixar was then the 45-person computer graphics group of Lucasfilms, led by Catmull, whose dream since graduate school had been to make a full-length digitally animated film. The group had developed the Pixar Image Computer, a computer graphics machine that produced high-end visual imaging (such as for MRIs). Jobs thought the technology had breakout potential when he bought it, yet the Pixar Image Computer never found a market.
Jobs also shrewdly allowed a tiny animation division, led by John Lasseter, a former animator from Disney, to make little bets on short animated films (and, later, TV commercials). Shorts would become the company’s vehicle to build the technical and storytelling expertise, as well as the credibility necessary to ultimately coproduce (with Disney) Toy Story in 1995, the first digitally animated feature film.
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