From candid meetings to the lack of employee contracts, here’s four lessons any business can learn from animation giant, Pixar

What can a business learn from Pixar, the innovative animation company that produced the first feature-length computer animated film, Toy Story?

First impressions might be ‘not a lot’. For one, it’s such a bespoke company – how can a business in any other sector possibly compare and learn from one that creates animated films for a living?

But CEO Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc book, which charts the culture of creativity at the studio, offers some great takeaways for anyone – whether you make films about toys or not. Here are four…

1. Physical spaces matter

Something which comes up a lot in the book is the importance of physical space, especially in the office. Catmull tells a great story about an oval table in Pixar’s meeting room which he grew to hate. Why? Because that one piece of furniture created a hierarchy in meetings just by being there.

Directors and producers would need to sit in the middle to be able to hear the discussions. And other staff would fill in at the ends of the table. In larger meetings it was even worse – when there wasn’t enough space at the table, people would sit around the edge of the room. The perception was clear – the nearer the centre of the table you were, the more important you were to the project. But Catmull believed everyone who worked on a project was as important as the next.

The solution? They scrapped the table and got a square one instead. That way everyone could see everyone else and there was no unwritten hierarchy in meetings. Simple, really.

2. Collective problem solving leads to phenomenal results

One of Pixar’s key feedback mechanisms for its productions is something it calls the Braintrust. The meetings – which take place every few months – are what Catmull describes as ‘our primary delivery system for straight talk’.

The premise is simple: put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.

As Catmull puts it: ‘Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are.

‘I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so – to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck”.’

3. Offering staff free classes = more collaboration

It may sound like a simple concept, but Pixar introduced something called Pixar University. The initiative is a simple one: staff get the opportunity to learn new skills in work time and often ones that have no immediate benefit to their day job. Like what, you might ask? Well, belly dancing, ballet and meditation are just three classes staff can enrol on.

The reason? ‘There was something about an apprentice lighting technician sitting alongside an experienced animator, who in turn was sitting next to someone who worked in legal or accounting or security,’ Catmull explains. ‘In the classroom setting, people interacted in a way they didn’t in the workplace. They felt free to be goofy, relaxed, open, and vulnerable.’

And even Catmull is not immune from ritual humiliation in classes, as this anecdote of a sketch class ending with a Technical Director hitting Catmull over the head with thin red balloons shows.

4. Do employment contracts stifle innovation?

Yes, you read that right – employees of Pixar don’t have contracts. The reason, Catmull explains, is simple. ‘I believe that it is our responsibility to make sure that Pixar is a place that people want to work. If our most talented people could leave, then we have to be on our toes to keep them happy.

‘When someone had a problem, we wanted it to be brought to the surface, not to fester. Most people know they don’t get their way on everything, but it is very important that they know they are being dealt with straightforwardly and that they, too, will be heard.’

These four examples only scratch the surface of Catmull’s book, which also includes some great insight into Steve Jobs’s role in the company’s success.

Is it possible for any business to learn from Pixar? Absolutely.


Author Profile - Steven Perryman

Steven Perryman is Grant Thornton UK's Digital Content Manager

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