Animated film studio Pixar has revolutionized movies, and is now applying that same innovative spirit to learning.
by Site Staff
December 22, 2009
Shaped by increasingly intense industry competition and the fast-paced nature of business in general, today’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 — including mass layoffs, budget cuts and the like — 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 />“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 — and ultimately being acquired by the Disney organization in 2006 for a cool $7.4 billion,” Capodagli said.<br /><br />It appeared Pixar had a unique and pioneering learning strategy in place that transformed the workplace into a “corporate playground where collaboration is the norm, where everybody’s ideas are important,” Capodagli said.<br /><br />At the heart of it all was Pixar University, which allows anyone — from janitors to technical directors — to take classes in all areas of animation for up to four hours a week. It was this openness, combined with the following “innovation principles” 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 “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.”<br /><br />Further, everyone in the company — “whether you’re in the boardroom or the storeroom” — 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>“Alvy Ray Smith III, who is the retired co-founder of Pixar, told us, ‘If you’re going to have really talented people, it’s really important that you have mutual respect and dignity across all organizational lines,’” 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’s really nothing better for preventing emotional burnout — especially in today’s negative climate — than cutting loose every now and then. <br /><br />“Fun is just the key to creating an innovative environment,” Capodagli said.<br /><br />“And the key to creating success at work,” Jackson added.<br /><br /><strong>4. Quality is the best business plan.</strong> “The other thing about the current business climate we’re in is we’re so driven by short-term results,” Jackson said. “That’s so anti-Pixar.”<br /><br />“Walt Disney said, ‘If you take care of the top line’ — and what he meant by that was if you take care of your product and your front-line providers of that product — ‘the bottom line will follow,’” Capodagli said. “He said too many companies look at that bottom line and look at ways of maximizing that bottom line and forget about how you’re serving the customer and the quality of the product you’re producing.”<br /><br />Implementing this last principle presents one of the biggest challenges for learning organizations today, however. <br /><br />“The No. 1 challenge is the emphasis on the short-term mentality,” Capodagli said. “I know it’s important to make payroll and to make next week’s [or] next month’s expenses. But to step back and look to the long term I think is so critical — especially in today’s business climate, seeing as how short-term thinking has gotten us into the recession that we’re in today.”<br /><br />Another major barrier to innovation is companies’ current cautiousness and pervasive aversion to risk taking.<br /><br />“Creativity really demands awareness: It demands attention to managing that failures basically happen on the path to success,” Jackson said. “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’t turn into a crisis, or they go on witch hunts to find somebody to blame. That risk taking — that ‘try, learn and try again’ culture at Pixar — it’s so hard for other organizations to adopt that.”<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 — and these included Men’s Warehouse, Nike, The Cheesecake Factory and Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.— all experienced three to five times reduced turnover. <br /><br />“That puts you at a considerable competitive advantage. [You can] spend that money on more innovative activities,” Capodagli said. “[After all], innovation doesn’t come from a miraculous revelation on the road to Damascus. It comes from habitual, nonstop, Pixar-style collaboration.”