The Animated Workforce: A Lesson From Pixar

Animated film studio Pixar has revolutionized movies, and is now applying that same innovative spirit to learning.

Shaped by increasingly intense industry competition and the fast-paced nature of business in general, today&rsquo;s marketplace demands that companies innovate or be left in the dust. While a major component of successful innovation is highly engaged, motivated employees, current economic woes and the accompanying organizational fallout &mdash; including mass layoffs, budget cuts and the like &mdash; have made them harder and harder to find. <br /><br />Yet, taking a cue from animated film studio Pixar, there are several ways organizations can reinvigorate their workforces and create a culture that not only allows for but engenders imaginative thinking, said Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, authors of Innovate the Pixar Way.<br /><br />&ldquo;Pixar burst onto our radar screen in about 1995. We watched this rather obscure boutique studio arise from what appeared to be just a technical subcontractor for Disney in the early days to virtually replacing Disney animation in the late 1990s &mdash; and ultimately being acquired by the Disney organization in 2006 for a cool $7.4 billion,&rdquo; Capodagli said.<br /><br />It appeared Pixar had a unique and pioneering learning strategy in place that transformed the workplace into a &ldquo;corporate playground where collaboration is the norm, where everybody&rsquo;s ideas are important,&rdquo; Capodagli said.<br /><br />At the heart of it all was Pixar University, which allows anyone &mdash; from janitors to technical directors &mdash; to take classes in all areas of animation for up to four hours a week. It was this openness, combined with the following &ldquo;innovation principles&rdquo; that Capodagli and Jackson identified, that led the company to produce 10 blockbuster movies in a row and gross more than $5 billion total.<br /><br /><strong>1. Always begin with a story. </strong>According to Jackson, this means &ldquo;making something new, totally wiping out the old, thinking like the director of a play and visualizing all the pieces of production. It connects you with your product and your customer.&rdquo;<br /><br />Further, everyone in the company &mdash; &ldquo;whether you&rsquo;re in the boardroom or the storeroom&rdquo; &mdash; should be able to identify exactly what that story is and rally around it, Capodagli said.<br /><br /><strong>2. Insist on mutual respect and trust. </strong>&ldquo;Alvy Ray Smith III, who is the retired co-founder of Pixar, told us, &lsquo;If you&rsquo;re going to have really talented people, it&rsquo;s really important that you have mutual respect and dignity across all organizational lines,&rsquo;&rdquo; Capodagli said.<br /><br />Pixar does just that by encouraging employee education at any level and adopting the philosophy that talent can exist in any pocket of the organization.<br /><br /><strong>3. Make work fun.</strong> It sounds cliche, but there&rsquo;s really nothing better for preventing emotional burnout &mdash; especially in today&rsquo;s negative climate &mdash; than cutting loose every now and then. <br /><br />&ldquo;Fun is just the key to creating an innovative environment,&rdquo; Capodagli said.<br /><br />&ldquo;And the key to creating success at work,&rdquo; Jackson added.<br /><br /><strong>4. Quality is the best business plan.</strong> &ldquo;The other thing about the current business climate we&rsquo;re in is we&rsquo;re so driven by short-term results,&rdquo; Jackson said. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s so anti-Pixar.&rdquo;<br /><br />&ldquo;Walt Disney said, &lsquo;If you take care of the top line&rsquo; &mdash; and what he meant by that was if you take care of your product and your front-line providers of that product &mdash; &lsquo;the bottom line will follow,&rsquo;&rdquo; Capodagli said. &ldquo;He said too many companies look at that bottom line and look at ways of maximizing that bottom line and forget about how you&rsquo;re serving the customer and the quality of the product you&rsquo;re producing.&rdquo;<br /><br />Implementing this last principle presents one of the biggest challenges for learning organizations today, however. <br /><br />&ldquo;The No. 1 challenge is the emphasis on the short-term mentality,&rdquo; Capodagli said. &ldquo;I know it&rsquo;s important to make payroll and to make next week&rsquo;s [or] next month&rsquo;s expenses. But to step back and look to the long term I think is so critical &mdash; especially in today&rsquo;s business climate, seeing as how short-term thinking has gotten us into the recession that we&rsquo;re in today.&rdquo;<br /><br />Another major barrier to innovation is companies&rsquo; current cautiousness and pervasive aversion to risk taking.<br /><br />&ldquo;Creativity really demands awareness: It demands attention to managing that failures basically happen on the path to success,&rdquo; Jackson said. &ldquo;The reason I think this is such a daunting task for organizations is that they bog down in bureaucracy. They hope and pray that problems won&rsquo;t turn into a crisis, or they go on witch hunts to find somebody to blame. That risk taking &mdash; that &lsquo;try, learn and try again&rsquo; culture at Pixar &mdash; it&rsquo;s so hard for other organizations to adopt that.&rdquo;<br /><br />That said, implementing a culture of innovation can carry great benefits. For example, of the other companies Capodagli and Jackson studied that had worked to create similar workplace environments &mdash; and these included Men&rsquo;s Warehouse, Nike, The Cheesecake Factory and Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.&mdash; all experienced three to five times reduced turnover. <br /><br />&ldquo;That puts you at a considerable competitive advantage. [You can] spend that money on more innovative activities,&rdquo; Capodagli said. &ldquo;[After all], innovation doesn&rsquo;t come from a miraculous revelation on the road to Damascus. It comes from habitual, nonstop, Pixar-style collaboration.&rdquo;