by Victoria Brodie
Leadership Lessons from Pixar
Fostering a culture of creativity in an organization can elicit powerful results. In the case of Pixar, these results consistently helped the company retain its talent and add to its bottom line. Pixar’s co-founder, Ed Catmull, used six primary strategies to develop a cohesive process that enabled success. The first was to encourage straight talk and keep the main thing the main thing, putting ego aside to speak honestly so that meetings become a place of open communication versus fear and trepidation. The second strategy was to learn how to receive feedback, knowing that feedback is only reflective of the work, not the individual. Honest feedback can enhance a greater understanding of our work and potentially develop new ideas. The third strategy: to collaborate with other experts. “Everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work” (Catmull, 2008). When people come together to share ideas and concepts it widens the perspective, brings inspiration and creates buy-in from others on building the concept. A fourth strategy was to nurture creativity is to not fear failure. At Pixar, the culture is to promote the sharing of ideas often and early. Taking risks is a part of the creative process and one that, if absent, points to a lack of creativity. The fifth strategy was to hire brilliant employees. Hire people who are smarter, brighter and better than you are, and these talented and ambitious people will help move the organization forward and everyone looking good in the process. Catmull’s final strategy was to facilitate, not just manage (Ziv, 2016). Facilitating talented and brilliant people helps bring out their best creative ideas, while managing has a more restrictive sense.
Leadership as a Guide
In the case of Pixar, the framework that was created by Catmul guided the successful change. When Catmull realized two standards of production were detrimental to the creative process, he began to crystallize his thoughts regarding a structure that would serve a creative organization (Catmull, 2008). Within this structure, Catmull developed the tenets of open conversation, feedback, collaboration, risk taking, hiring incredible talent, and facilitating, not managing, the creative process. Catumull created an environment that fueled innovation, drove creativity, all centered in a culture that embraced a flexible and ambiguous workplace that encouraged risk-taking (Smith & Paquette, 2010).
If the Pixar culture continues to hold the strategies Catmull put in place, the framework allows for flexibility and adaptation with a focus on the future. These characteristics will allow Pixar to shift to the needs of the environment they are in, rather than manipulating the environment to stay static or shift it to their needs. By understanding the uncertainty of the future, while still in pursuit of innovation, Pixar acknowledges the need to experiment and even fail. It is through this process that the organization gains knowledge to inform the next iteration or experiment (Smith & Paquette, 2010). It is this dynamic forward-facing culture that has been the foundation of their success and continues to be.
Pixar’s structure of creativity and innovation that is deeply embedded into its culture helps to institutionalize the changes that occurred from the Toy Story 2 challenges (Stragalas, 2010). By utilizing a framework that permeated all levels of management as well as throughout the organizational culture, the change initiatives continued to be executed throughout Pixar. Using a process that continues to be mindful of concerted systematic improvements that sustain employee engagement will enable Pixar to maintain and even enhance this trend of success (Stragalas, 2010).
One indication of the power and longevity in this structure of creativity and innovation was shown after an IDEO partner, Peter Coughlan, visited the animation studios of Pixar in Emeryville, California, where he was inspired by the process of Pixar’s success. Commenting on the topic of design for massive change, Coughlan stated, “What if we could use the power of design to help create a storyboard of the future of humankind: an easy-to-understand, emotionally engaging, tangible, action-inspiring story of what’s needed to create positive change on a global scale” (2010)? By all appearances, Pixar’s future is bright with possibilities.
Catmull, E. (2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Coughlan, P. (2010). How Might Design Catalyse Massive (Positive) Change? Journal Of Corporate Citizenship
Smith, S., & Paquette, S. (2010). Creativity, chaos and knowledge management. Business Information Review,doi:10.1177/0266382110366956
Stragalas, N. (2010). Improving Change Implementation Practical Adaptations of Kotter’s Model. OD Practitioner
Ziv, R. (2016), To infinity and beyond, TechBeacon