Pixar’s 5 Tips for Growing an Awesome Workplace Environment for Creativity


Dysfunction in the creative process is a top five complaint I hear from church leaders and creatives. As one pastor wrote me, “My top priority right now is getting the right people in the room, with enough content and enough time to dream and accomplish the creative vision.”

 

A lack of creativity is a complex problem with many layers.

Some of the problem is tactical, like where or when to meet and who should be in the room. These decisions are important, and I cover a lot of them here, but I think there’s something even more important. Creating an environment where creativity flourishes and creative people want to be requires more than just changing a few methods such as the day you meet or who’s in the room.

Some of the problem is strategic, like how far ahead to meet and what sorts of questions to ask in the planning process. But having a plan isn’t sufficient, either.

Some of the problem is systemic, such as the continued influence of models of knowing and being based on print culture, which has several qualities that are antithetical to creativity. You can’t fix this in a single blog post.

But don’t lose hope! There’s something specific you can that, over the long term, trumps both tactics and strategies, and can even begin to foster systemic change.

 

The solution starts with establishing a healthy creative culture.

The power of culture is greater than the power of strategic planning or great everyday tactics. If you make the culture great, the end result will almost always be great.

“Making a culture” sounds lofty and fuzzy, right? Lucky for us, we’ve got Disney and Pixar.

 

Pixar and Disney provide a great case study for building a creative culture.

Pixar president Ed Catmull wrote a great book on creative leadership: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.  A chapter near the end that describes what happened after Pixar and Disney merged in 2007 reads as a wonderful case study on how to foster a creative culture.

Over the previous decade, Pixar had become a symbol for creativity. Disney, itself once the symbol for creativity in culture, had developed an amazing vertical network, capable of piping content directly into people’s homes, but somewhere along the way had lost their creative prowess.

In 2006 Steve Jobs, co-founder of Pixar, realized that he needed to merge Pixar with Disney to give it necessary freedom to grow. The danger was that Disney’s dysfunctional creative culture would swallow Pixar’s healthy creative culture.

Ed Catmull was in charge of leading the merger. With his first tour of the Disney studios, he realized the problem he faced: He had to figure out how to introduce a creative culture inside of an uncreative culture.

 

6 Signs of a Un-Creative Culture.

Here are the sorts of things Catmull encountered at Disney. (See if any sound familiar.)

  1. Employees don’t feel free to express themselves. It’s the first thing Catmull noticed while touring Disney offices. All of the desks were clean. He later learned employees had been told to hid their “toys” – the very personal forms of expression which symbolize creative freedom and security.
  2. Employees are more concerned with preventing errors than with pursuing greatness. People operated in a negative culture in which error was punished, sometimes with impunity. He writes, “the concept of zero failure is worse than useless. It’s counter-productive.”
  3. There’s a hierarchy of worth based on placement in the org chart.
  4. There’s a lot of secrecy and a lack of communication. Information was a need to know basis.
  5. There’s a unreasonably high value on efficiency. Naturally, everyone wants jobs to be “easy” – to fit the existing process without deviation. But creativity demands new thinking, with ideas that don’t fit existing molds. The resulting tension between innovation and efficiency is natural, and even healthy, but only when managed well with good communication, and with a proper understanding of the respective roles. If process is in charge, creativity is stifled. Creativity leads, and process fills in.
  6. New ideas require several channels of approval, most of which are obfuscated. There’s an undue emphasis on meeting budget and being efficient. Budgets are built on rollover from last year’s activity. (Budgets are built on the status quo. Therefore, budgets are by nature the enemy of innovation.)

Do you recognize any of these symptoms?

How do you create an environment that fosters creativity? Here are some specific things Catmull did to foster an environment in which creative people can thrive.

 

Five leadership rules to encourage creativity and allow artistry to thrive.

1. Separate the healthy group from the un-creative.

With the merger between Disney and Pixar complete, Catmull and his team eschewed plans for a physical merger and elected to keep Pixar in northern California and Disney in southern California. The danger was that they’d be stretched too thin. But it was important to maintain the health of what they’d built at Pixar and force Disney to form its own identity, both for fixing its issues and celebrating its wins.

2. Flatten the physical work environment.

The Disney offices were still structured according to a mid-20th century corporate model, with executive offices walled off on the top floor like an exclusive community. Catcall converted this floor into 2 spacious “story rooms” for the purposes of making an environment for collaboration and feedback.

He moved the executive offices to the 2nd floor, right in the center of the action. He put windows in the offices and left the blinds up most of the time to create a culture of transparency. He ripped out walls near the executive offices and put in a snack and coffee bar to encourage interaction among the staff. He removed most of the cubicles, and gave the administrative assistants offices whenever possible.

3. Get rid of the peanut gallery.

Disney had been using an “oversight group” whose job was to analyze production reports and look for ways to be more efficient but whose primary effect was to kill morale.

Their presence served a peanut gallery of cheap seat hecklers, critics who instead of doing the work, criticized with ignorance and a focus on insignificant details.

Over time, Catmull got rid of structures that encouraged management without blood, sweat and tears. Only those in the arena deserve to critique.

4. Get rid of internal competition for resources.

Most movies at Disney had been set up to compete for the same set of resources, so they were not bonded as a group. That impeded workflow. Catmull only gives this decision one sentence, but I see it in organizations all of the time.

To solve this, some organizations re-align by separating their departments into self-contained business units, so that each department (or in the case of a studio, each project or movie) is self-contained. But this doesn’t work either, as it results in a confederation of nation states who are aligned only in name and whose goals drift in different directions.

The solution? Identify and make decisions based on core values. (Click here to learn how to name and leverage your core values.) A good list of values minimizes unhealthy competition by aligning all parties to a common goal. Values became decision-making tools. Every department, project or idea understands their position according to the values. When clearly communicated, there is no confusion or back room deal to get resources and get things done, and if your area gets bumped, you may not like it but you know exactly why.

5. Find actual, not positional, leaders.

Catmull devotes one sentence to this as well, but I think what he means is this: there are different types of influence. Dysfunctional organizations are weighted too heavily to positional power and hierarchical thinking.

The solution is to reward leadership on merit, not position, and de-emphasize positional behaviors (“do it this way because I’m the boss and I said so”). Another way of saying this is what Catmull writes throughout his book:

Good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization.

Some leaders give this lip service and some believe it and live it.

 

What strategies do you live by to help foster a creative culture?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).