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Clear Thinking Case Study of the Month

The Story

April 2011

“The Continuous Creative Process
- Pixar's incredible run of success” 

Pixar Animation Studios has produced an amazing string of 11 blockbuster animation films such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. This extraordinary success rate is not down to luck, it stems from an unusual culture and organisation design that fosters creativity – continuously. The news article described how they do it. We dug a little deeper and analysed why Pixar’s creative system works, and could work for any organisation.

Key points of the Story

Pixar's highly successful culture of constant creativity that avoids complacency 

Pixar’s success was down to Steve Job’s Visionary Thinking. The Apple co-founder bought the business for just $5 million in 1986. He sold it to Walt Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion. The key to this success was allowing Pixar’s small (at that time) animation division to develop its skills, technology, and reputation by making short films and tv adverts.

But the driver for continuous creativity is Pixar’s culture of engaging employees. Everybody gets involved in giving feedback to the production teams, in some cases every single day. The film director has the final decision but even the newest animator has the chance to volunteer opinions and constructive ideas. Everybody is prepared to challenge, and be challenged.

This creative culture and feedback process raises the bar for all participants, stimulates group creativity, avoids mistakes, and prevents complacency. The business result is that Walt Disney has considerably out-performed the US stock market by about 45% since it bought Pixar.

 

Analysis and Lessons

Learning Culture … Creative Culture and Processes … Creative Thinking …
Controls Thinking … Creative Concept … Strategic Thinking

In-built Creativity

 

Pixar doesn’t need to buy-in ideas from outside the company (normally viewed as a sound policy); all its creative ideas come from its own staff. It gives writers, artists, and other ‘creatives’ leeway to make decisions. But they make it a safe environment for creating wild ideas, and for making mistakes, by sharing unfinished work with peers, who provide honest but constructive feedback.

Learning Culture

They also run ‘post-mortems’ after a project is concluded to learn valuable lessons for what worked well and what didn’t. This is extremely useful for developing creative and project management skills, and Pixar’s unique sequence of successes is proof that its system works.

 The Creative Culture and Processes

Pixar’s creativity isn’t just about one set of people thinking up individual ideas. It pervades the whole organisation and they apply Creative Thinking to every scene, every character, every sentence, and every aspect of a project. And everybody does it. It is in-built into the company’s culture. This is their system – a unique balance of Creative Thinking and Controls Thinking.

Empower Creativity. Give your people who have the idea, especially your creatives, control over every stage of development. Give them the time to explore and develop their ideas. At Pixar, when preparing a scene for Finding Nemo in which the fish characters Marlin and Dory become trapped in a whale, two of the team climbed inside a dead whale stranded on a beach in California. And Pixar’s film directors have a great deal of autonomy.

Develop a peer support culture. Encourage peers to support each other with ideas and feedback. At Pixar, work is shown to others daily, which minimises embarrassment and stimulates even greater creativity. In addition teams have a detailed overview every two months or so.

Tolerate mistakes. Creativity stretches boundaries. Mistakes are inevitable. At Pixar, if the review system decides that a film section isn’t working well enough the team is allowed to start again from scratch. Everybody feels they have a stake in getting it right. They share the mistakes and successes.

Make communication easy. At Pixar anyone can communicate with anybody else. Permissions are not necessary. There are no ‘proper channels’ to inhibit communication. Problem solving becomes faster and more productive.

Promote a Learning Culture. You need to change the way people Think, their mindset, in order to develop a learning behaviour (and therefore, culture). At Pixar, Pixar University has over 100 courses helping people to develop as they move through their careers. And they offer a range of creative courses open to all disciplines which allow yet another avenue for shared/stimulated ideas creation and development.

 Pixar’s key Creative Concept

 

Pixar’s success is actually based on one broad creative idea. Most of their films are based around characters that appeal to children (eg toys, fish, monsters) but who have adult-like personalities that deal with adult-like problems. This ensures that the films appeal to children and parents, which creates tremendous selling power.

Pixar’s Strategy

Pixar is not just an animation studio making its own films. It also licenses its technological innovations to special-effects houses producing other studios movies, for example Pirates of the Caribbean and the Harry Potter films. Good Business Thinking and Strategy Thinking.

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