What Healthcare Can Learn from Pixar’s Braintrust

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 7.55.16 AMI am reading Creativity, Inc. right now by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.

One particular quote by Catmull that has stuck with me personally over the last few days is this:

“At some point, every Pixar movie sucks.”

Which got me thinking – are we in the “suck” part of transforming healthcare right now?

In my opinion, all roads lead to yes.  Still, I don’t want to dwell on the suck part, I want to focus on how one of the world’s most innovative companies, Pixar, transforms their “ugly babies” (mediocre ideas) into something magical (a la Toy Story 2 or my personal favorite, Up) – and how the healthcare industry can learn fromPixar’s “Braintrust” model.

Forget that it’s cliché – celebrate failure

One of the key things that make the Braintrust at Pixar unique is the fact that candor and honesty are truly placed on a pedestal.  More so, failure is celebrated to a certain degree in the culture Catmull outlines.

He writes, “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you’re making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

Which leads me to something failure related that many in the healthcare industry have debated – whether the government did the right thing by incentiving providers to adopt electronic health records (EHRs).  I think many would agree that the answer to that is no.

Instead of touting the percentage of organizations reaching certain stages of meaningful use attestation, would the government’s honest admittance of a certain degree of failure provide a chance to successfully redirect efforts?

I think yes.

Yet, due to the risk adverse nature of the healthcare industry and the engrained fear of failure in all of us, we (not just government) are all too often guilty of pushing forward with similar mediocre ideas merely to see them through when they may have been better served by being put to rest.

Fail early and fail often

In Catmull’s book he also expounds upon the Braintrust’s critical role in helping their directors bring problems in their films to the surface early on.  To learn more about the Braintrust and how it differs from other feedback models currently established, I’d highly recommend this read from FastCompanyInside the Pixar Brain Trust.

The Braintrust does not solve the problem for the director, they offer honest feedback on areas where the film is simply not jiving and then allow the director to address as they see fit.  One could imagine the positive impact a Braintrust might have on a health system that’s fighting the good fight when it comes to juggling and addressing a host of complicated changes in real-time – assimilation of physician practices, alignment with value vs. volume, how best to engage and enlighten consumers, and so forth.

Might a Brainstrust help a health system, particularly the CIO, find creative solutions to complex problems as it does with Pixar?

Lean on others to regain perspective

Lastly, Catmull calls out another notable truth in his book: “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things – in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.

But it is also confusing.  Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it.  Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.”  And this, to me, is indicative of where so many players in the healthcare industry – including consumers –stand today.

Amidst all the fast-paced change, we have simply lost perspective and have been driven both by fear and the intrinsic need for fast-paced change in healthcare – even if it’s the wrong kind of change.

Nonetheless, not all is lost by any means.  It is easy to call out the failures – be it doctors’ frustrations with the increased administrative duties brought on by electronic health records or insurers who must create ways to actually get consumers interested in living healthier lives.

However, it is by no means easy to even consider the concept of failure in an industry based on saving lives.

And yet, we must intelligently consider just that for the longer term livelihood of our nation’s healthcare system.

As Catmull notes, “Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems and encourage them to be candid.”  Maybe this idea, as exemplified by Pixar’s Braintrust, is just what we need to truly start fixing healthcare.

Katie McGraw is a seasoned storyteller with more than a decade of experience in healthcare communications.  She helped lead the creation of the SHIFT Communication’s healthcare practice, and previously provided in-house communications counsel at a Massachusetts-based company that offers intelligent systems for physicians.