Braintrust :: Where is your Braintrust?
3 min read

Braintrust :: Where is your Braintrust?

Here I shared with you how I came across the Farnam Street Think workshop. After Paris, I returned each year, 2018 to Lisbon, 2019 to Vienna, and 2020... well, you know why this didn't happen.

It was not only the people—as the people changed each year—but the format of the workshop that made me return each year. I didn't experience such an exciting learning experience anywhere else. Here is the recipe in a nutshell:

  • Take a diverse group of people, that ideally share one important passion (for Farnam Street this was mental models).
  • Everyone submits one challenge, personal or professional, for the workshop
  • In the days before the workshop, everyone does some research on all the topics
  • At the event, each person gets the spotlight for one hour and moderates the conversation

The results were magical.

First of all, I was surprised that I didn't only learn from my topic, I learned something from every topic!

The combination of doing some research and thinking it through myself, hearing the input of a diverse group, and seeing the person who brought that challenge react to it was highly transformative.

Each year I left with the question, why not more people are leveraging such a system. Then I came across one famous example, where they do: Pixar's Braintrust.

You might remember how Pixar conquered the world of animated movies by storm, a domain that used to be dominated for generations by Disney. Pixar started strong with Toy Story but after that continued to release one hit film after another.

I recently re-watched all of the foundational Pixar movies with my daughter. Let me tell you, they are phenomenal! They are not mere children's movies, they are simply great, entertaining movies.

Even more astonishing, I learned that many ideas for these films came out of a single brainstorming session during a lunch meeting, namely: A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E.

This is a strong indicator that it is not simply luck or pick of the draw, but rather the result of a deliberate process. These hits were created! And maybe the most important part may very well be the Pixar Braintrust.

You'll find a reference to the Braintrust in the Pixar Wikipedia entry but I love this animated story, from the screenwriter of Toy Story 3. At minute 1:10 he confirms the crucial role of the process

"With all the help I had, in all honesty, they could have hired a drunken chimpanzee to write the script and it still would have turned out well".

The basic process is this: during the creation of a movie, the director comes together with a group of other seasoned directors, they all watch the current version of the movie and then provide candid feedback.

Now here comes a key detail: the experts have no authority over the creator. They just make a genuine effort to help in a constraint meeting and then leave.

Ed Catmull—a foundational member of Pixar—puts it this way: “Every time we show a film for the first time, it sucks,” and the creative process is then “going from suck to nonsuck.”

Now here it gets even more astonishing. Catmull replicated the success of this process when he moved from Pixar to Disney animation studios. At that point, Disney had a track record of falling behind Pixar and creating one mediocre movie after another. See this interview where Catmull shares the story.

Ed Catmull: Inside the Braintrust
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, explains the highly effective concept of the “Braintrust,” which comprises a group of passionate...

They kept the Pixar and Disney teams separate, even kept the same people at Disney, and just started to implement the Braintrust process. A few short years later, The Snow Princess was released by Disney Animation. It was the highest-grossing animated film in history!

My takeaway is this: candid feedback from a group of experts, in a setting that doesn't put pressure on the creator, can be transformational! And I think it was this learning that made me return to the Farnam Street events every single year.

So where is your Braintrust?

Especially for knowledge entrepreneurs, a workshop like this could be of immense value. That's why it was the first thing that came to mind when Max asked me in one Salon session "So what's next?".

This is what I want to provide you with, in the weekend workshop on Feb 20 & 21.

I'll go into more details here.


PS: if you know somebody who could be interested in this, too. Please send them to this page. If they sign up there they can catch up on the last mails and get the next ones tomorrow as well 😀

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