What Your Business Can Learn From Pixar

The collaborative environment at Pixar Animation Studios is the stuff of legend. Not only has the studio given us their magnificent portfolio of Disney/Pixar movies and created indispensable animation technology, they have also birthed a work practice that encourages group creativity, brings out the best in individuals and guarantees success. No matter what they are working on, Pixar’s endeavours are successful both artistically and financially.

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So what can small businesses, with far fewer employees and no backing from Disney, take away from Pixar’s success? Luckily, the core principles at the heart of Pixar’s practice can be replicated on any scale. These are the four most important ways to bring some Pixar magic to your business.

Trust in people, not ideas

Pixar founder and president Ed Catmull says many observers think his studio is successful thanks to good ideas; Toys coming to life, monsters in the closet, a fish far from home, etc,. He disagrees. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Catmull says while most companies value ideas above people, Pixar values people above ideas. His logic? “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.” In other words: Good people can elevate bad ideas, but bad people can ruin good ideas.

Catmull sees this as the most important factor in Pixar’s success. Their hiring practice is geared towards bringing together the most gifted group of people possible. Fostering a talented community will attract even more talented people, allowing the team, and the team’s reputation, to grow.

On hiring, Catmull has another important message, sometimes lost on small-minded CEOs: “It’s okay to hire people who are smarter than you are.” This advice, obvious if you are dedicated to creating a truly brilliant workforce, leads us onto our next Pixar principle.

Leave your ego at the door

According to Catmull and others at Pixar, another important factor in Pixar’s success is the ‘postmortems’ they perform when their movies are released. Project postmortems are common in many industries, but Pixar’s are some of the most thorough.

Even though nearly every movie they make is successful, the management and everyone involved dedicates time to going over what went wrong in the process, and what could be done better next time.

Postmortems can be difficult, but it never helps to adopt a defensive attitude. At Pixar, all the employees speak their minds, no matter how junior or senior, and they are all open to criticism. This is the only way a group can learn from its mistakes together. It can be painful, but ultimately it leads to better practice. Peers can still be supportive during the postmortem approach, which will lead to an even more productive process.

This ego-less approach extends beyond the postmortem process. During every project, Pixar employees display their work to their colleagues for feedback while it is still in progress. Other workers give their opinions, and hopefully help fix any issues before they become major problems. Catmull says exposing your work in progress allows people to be more creative in what they do, and to up their game when they see someone else’s great work.

Work in a creative environment

The people and the attitude are important at Pixar, but so too is the building they work in. Pixar’s main campus is based in Emeryville, California. The campus’ main building was dubbed ‘The Steve Jobs Building’ when the Apple CEO died in 2012. Steve Jobs designed the building himself when he was Pixar’s CEO, with the intention of building the perfect incubator of creativity.

As a result of Jobs’ dedication, the building encourages creativity by forcing employees into chance encounters as they cross the large central atrium to get to the single set of bathrooms, or to other departments. Unexpected chance encounters like these can spark new ideas and collaborations that could bring the company more success.

You don’t need a huge atrium to replicate this design; having communal areas in the middle of the office will do fine. Workers waiting for the kettle in the kitchen have spawned great ideas since the offices of old. Try rearranging your desks to create more surprise collisions between employees.

The creative environment ethos at Pixar is about more than just bathroom bonding. Pixar workers are encouraged to decorate and customise their desks in any way they please. CCO John Lasseter’s office is strewn with toys and memorabilia from every Pixar film. Other Pixar cubicles are designed to look like beach huts, old sheds, castles and much more.

Allowing workers to feel comfortable and at home in their workspace has a hugely positive effect on their performance, according to Pixar. Other workspace designers agree that even something as simple as colour in office design can impact productivity.

A creative environment, populated by a skilled team unafraid of criticism, can bring Pixar success to any small business. But what is the final and perhaps most important Pixar principle for a small business to take on board?

Take risks and be unconventional

In the same Harvard Business Review article, and in his book Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull says the reason Pixar has been so successful is that their ideas are totally ridiculous and that they could go terribly wrong if they were done badly. The premise of the hit film Ratatouille involves a talking rat who wants to be a chef who can somehow control a young man’s movements by pulling the man’s hair. The movie Up is based around an old man’s flight to South America in a house pulled by balloons. These are crazy ideas. As we mentioned earlier in the article, all it takes is a great team to bring a crazy idea to fruition.

Taking chances on such strange and unique ideas is what makes Pixar films stand out in the world of ‘safe bet’ sequels and bland blockbusters. “If you want to be original,” says Catmull, “you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

Accept the uncertainty, work with talented people in a creative environment, and you will see success, whatever you do.

 

This article was written by Simon Davies from Business2Community and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Simon Davies
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Simon Davies

Simon Davies is a freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.
Simon Davies
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