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Try the Braintrust at your next meeting

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in Leaders & Managers,Team Building

To get employees to engage in creative collaboration, insist on candor.

At Pixar, the movie studio behind blockbusters such as “Toy Story” and “Cars”, Ed Catmull cultivated a culture in which filmmakers could share ideas and opinions in a free-flowing, nonthreatening manner. He devised the Braintrust, a regular series of management meetings where the primary purpose is straight talk.

“Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and en­­cour­­age them to be candid,” Catmull says.

To maximize the quality of feedback and spur innovation, the Braintrust cannot push its views onto others. The director of the movie in question wields authority to accept or reject input from colleagues. The group itself cannot mandate its own solutions.

The goal of the Braintrust is to raise awareness of potential roadblocks—“to bring the true causes of problems to the surface,” as Catmull says—so that the team can explore remedies. Exposing the underlying source of a problem is critical in advancing everyone toward the best solution.

Braintrusts work so well because they depersonalize the subject matter. Participants criticize the film itself, not the individuals involved in creating it.

Andrew Stanton, an Oscar winner for “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”, compares the Braintrust to a group of trusted doctors who are advising their patient (which is the movie under discussion). They focus on diagnosing and fixing ailments. This makes it easier to criticize without alienating others in the room.

— Adapted from Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, Random House.

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