If its Good Enough for Pixar

I recently talked to a government employee who had been rapped on the knuckles because she had initiated a conversation with an employee who was one level above her on the management grid. Apparently their ministry policy is such that one can only communicate with someone at their own level – no one above and no one below.

Call me crazy but that does seem to be rather outdated thinking. And, if you don’t believe me, believe Pixar Animation Studios.

Best known for awarding winning animated feature films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Cars, Pixar has articulated three principles for how they foster collective creativity. 

The first of their principles is that “Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone”.

Unlike the provincial ministry where my colleague works, Pixar has recognized that the decision-making hierarchy and communication structure in organizations are two different things. They understand that the creativity required to respond to complexity must involve a larger number of people from different disciplines working effectively together. As a result, they’ve made it acceptable for anyone from any department to approach anyone in another department to solve problems without having to go through official channels. 

While it is conducive to creativity, it does create another set of challenges. For instance, there will be times where managers won’t be the first to know about something going on in their bailiwick, and, they will need to be okay with both being surprised occasionally, and having less control of the process. Ultimately though, these challenges will be offset by the efficiencies that result when people can work out challenges directly with one another without having to ask permission.

The second principle of Pixar’s is that “It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.”

Creativity is not a solo act. They’ve learned that while it is essential, it is also tough to get talented people to work together. It requires a nurturing and supportive environment to build a community of trusted and respectful relationships where talented people are loyal to one another and to a collective vision. Pixar does this by breaking down the walls between disciplines. One way they do this is through the courses they offer at Pixar University which trains and cross-trains people as they develop in their careers. It gives people from different disciplines the opportunity to mix and appreciate what everyone does. Pixar University helps reinforce the mind-set that they’re all learning together. Their building is also structured to maximize chance encounters. At its centre is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, washrooms, and mailboxes. As a result, everyone has a lot of reasons to go there during the day and potentially connect with others.

Pixar’s third principle is that, “We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community”.  In their case, they strongly encourage the publication of their research, and participation in industry conferences. While they understand it may give away ideas, they also know it keeps them connected to the academic community. That connection is worth more than any ideas revealed because it helps them attract talent while reinforcing their fundamental belief that people are more important than ideas.

In addition to these three principles, Pixar also sees the need for practices that will systematically fight complacency and continue to uncover problems. These include having clear values, constant communication, routine postmortems, and the regular injection of outsiders. Of course, strong leadership needs to be in place to ensure people don’t just pay lip service to the values, tune out the communications, ignore the processes, and automatically discount the observations and suggestions of newcomers.

Pixar also acknowledges the importance of liberating people to take risks and try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.

Perhaps that’s where my colleague’s ministry can begin. Maybe they can shift their low- risk mentality where fear is prevalent, to one where the calculated risk of letting people simply communicate with one another is encouraged. If it works for the complex environment of making movies, surely it can work for government.

Posted on 11-20-11


Great blog, Brenda! It’s interesting to not only see how the private sector is embracing creativity but also be reminded that we can’t become better by remaining in our own silos.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  11/21/11  at  10:30 AM

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