Collaboration and Collective Creativity: The Disney/Pixar Connection

Michael Martin, Abeo


The human interactions in collaboration can be so nuanced, how do we increase the instances of great collaboration in the educational realm?  

One thing we can do is look to other fields.

Chris Williams, co-director of the movie Big Hero 6, recently had a post on Medium that talked about effective collaboration that produces great cinematic art at Disney - and some of the problems and roadblocks inherent in any good collaborative effort.  In the past when we've talked about collaboration with teachers and leaders, we have used examples from Pixar as a way to ask them to think differently about collaboration.

In particular, we've shown groups a video of Randy Nelson, former Dean of Pixar University.  In this, Nelson talks of the difference between cooperation and collaboration.  In the former, a group of people work separately from one another on the same project; in the latter, people work together in creative dialogue, bringing multiple perspectives and expertise to bear on the project. 

Nelson also describes the importance of "plussing" (which, by the way, is a term that goes back to Walt Disney's time).  To plus an idea is to take it, build on it, to expand it, and "amplify" it with increased brain power.  In schools, this kind of collaboration can be key to solving complex problems, designing new curricula, and generating innovative and creative ideas.  

This leads us to a very positive vision of collaboration as collective creativity, but what are some of the problems?  Big Hero 6 director Williams describes a huge roadblock, the fact of putting your ideas - and vulnerabilities - out there for feedback in a team setting:   

"You have to fight the human desire for affirmation and you have to actively foster an environment where people feel comfortable disagreeing with you — and disagreeing with each other — if that’s how they feel."

For Williams, points of disagreement are a natural part of the process.  In fact, the creative conflict that results from the interaction of people with their unique perspectives can be the spark that leads to the emergence of better ideas. 

A culture that is comfortable with, and allows for risk-taking is foundational for a culture that uses its collective brainpower to solve problems and generate solutions.  When our students engage in healthy intellectual conflict, we often see it as a positive.  We as educators should embrace this mode of conflict in our roles as well.

At Abeo, we do a lot of thinking about these issues.  We're often plussing each other's work - on agendas, frameworks, presentations, articles, blog posts, and the like.  Before putting work in front of an audience, we want to get a lot of minds thinking about it and offering ideas and solutions - not just heroically trying to get it done individually, by ourselves.  

From experience, we've seen that educators who harness the power of collaboration, working together, building on ideas, taking risks with getting feedback on ideas, and understanding the value of creative conflict, are more satisfied in their roles and in their work.


Abeo uses a protocol, the Charrette, to facilitate creative feedback conversations, get it here.