What Cartoons Teach Us About Successful Innovation

As the Ipsos Ideas Spotlight blog kicks off, I think the title of this post alone communicates everything you might ever want to know about the type and quality of contribution you can expect from me.

I wanted to start with a broad-based discussion about successful innovation, and more specifically successful innovation processes.  It’s a conversation I seem to have with people quite frequently, searching for companies that we might collectively consider to be successful with new product innovation.

Putting the wisdom of the (clearly identified and pre-screened) crowd to work, and factoring in their collective knowledge as well as a sprinkling of my unavoidable and periodic cynicism, my colleagues and I talked about a broad swath of companies – P&G, Unilever, Reckitt, General Mills, all the usual suspects.  We threw in a smattering of high tech companies as well – Apple, Google, Microsoft.

During the course of these conversations, we had a difficult time coming to consensus – though many of the companies we discussed are successful innovators, who clearly over time have built a business through innovation, it was difficult to select a specific company that we thought should be emulated. We saw some visionaries, we saw some vultures good at circling around on the next big thing developed by some soon-to-be-wealthy entrepreneur.  We saw some who were exceptional at close-in line extensions, others who were better at the mid-range or breakthrough.  We saw some deep pockets, we saw some luck.  But in none of these situations was there consensus that we’d identified a defined, repeatable, successful process that anyone could emulate.

Everyone’s Gone to the Movies

I was at the movies with my kids this past weekend, and saw a promotion for the upcoming movie Brave from Pixar.  My first thought was “Thank goodness, finally a movie I can see with my kids that doesn’t make me regret that electricity was invented.”  Then I realized there is in fact a company whose innovation process I admire and believe should be emulated by every CPG company.

The Pixar Run of Success

There is a company in one of the most difficult businesses on earth who has never had a failure, whose worst-performing product would be considered a raging success by any other company.  Take a look at this run of success for Pixar (listed in order of release, including worldwide gross and Metacritic score):

  • Toy Story:  $362 million, 92
  • A Bug’s Life:  $363 million, 77
  • Toy Story 2:  $486 million, 88
  • Monsters, Inc.: $529 million, 78 (my personal favorite)
  • Finding Nemo:  $869 million, 89
  • The Incredibles:  $636 million, 90
  • Cars, $462 million, 73
  • Ratatouille, $624 million, 96
  • WALL-E:  $533 million, 94
  • Up:  $727 million, 88
  • Toy Story 3:  $1,064 million, 92
  • Cars 2:  $554 million, 57 (the closest to failure of any Pixar movie)

When a movie making $100 million is typically considered a success, and with a Metacritic score of 70 or more in the top of the database, that’s a great run.  And it applies equally for new products and line extensions (meaning, uh, sequels).  I’d also like to go on the record as saying if Cars 2 was the first Pixar movie ever, it would have gotten way better reviews.

How Pixar Does It

An article in Wired magazine detailed the process for creating Toy Story 3.  If I were to turn that into a process we could use in the CPG world (note that this is not all in this one article, I’m drawing on other things I’ve read as well), I might do it as follows:

  • Build stable teams that know and trust one another
  • Create a vision, and trust the vision (note:  the vision can be singular [think Apple] or collective)
  • Set deadlines that enable the pursuit of perfection but never its attainment
  • Create dual evaluative processes
    • Within team – to insure adherence to the vision
    • Across team – to provide context and pressure test
    • Throwing stuff away is not a failure – it’s part of the process
  • Balance the creative and the commercial sides
    • Aiming just for short-term commercial success is soul-less
  • Wash, rinse, repeat
    • Same group of people
    • Same process

Pixar has really done exactly what Ipsos counsels our clients to do.  They’ve selected a platform (in this case, a particular type of animated movie), continually ideate around that platform (and I’m willing to bet ideas come from lots of places), and created a culture that fosters that innovation in a constructive way.  My guess is that Pixar culture is very different than what we typically encounter, where people sometimes rotate teams as if riding a carousal.  Pixar seems to offer more of a collective success, as opposed to the individual success we sometimes see rewarded.

How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity

Turns out, it’s about people and process.  From a Harvard Business Review article, directly from Ed Catmull, President of Pixar (as paraphrased by me):

  • Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur.
  • It must be safe to tell the truth.
  • We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.
  • In complex product development, creativity involves a large number from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems.
  • Leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the ones that fit into a coherent whole, which is a very difficult task.
  • If we aren’t always a little scared, we’re not doing our jobs.
  • Customers want to see something new every time.
  • We as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks.  It is this instinct which leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than trying to create something brand new.  That’s why you see so many products that are so much alike.  It also explains why most products aren’t very good.
  • If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails.  What’s the key to being able to recover?  Talented people!

Note that any place Mr. Catmull used the word movies, creative, script, etc., I removed it or replaced it with a CPG word.  Bet you couldn’t tell the difference.  He could have been speaking directly to those of us who work in CPG innovation.  He also said one other thing, from a different speech, that I wanted to be sure to include:  “I don’t like hard rules at all.  I think they are all bull@#$%.”  A man after my own heart.

An Innovative Company to Admire

On a personal level, I’m glad to now be able to say, when someone asks if there’s a company whose innovation strategy I admire, that innovates across different development horizons equally well, “Yes, it’s Pixar.”  Think about how their process works, and how it aligns with how CPG companies operate. I’d argue within CPG we often take “relevant” and try to make it “different,” whereas Pixar takes different and tries to make it relevant.  Same principles, different approach, better outcome.