Innovate the Pixar Way | Notes & Review

Posted on August 23, 2010


Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground. McGraw Hill, 2010. (208 pages)

Collective creativity within a corporate culture never happens by accident. It begins with creative leadership that is trustworthy and in turn trusts others to accomplish big dreams. (x)

Success doesn’t just breed success — it breeds autonomy, which in turn nurtures creativity. – John Lasseter

The Pixar “playground” will inspire you to:

Dream like a child.
Believe in your playmates.
Dare to jump in the water and make waves.
Do unleash your childlike potential.

Remember the Magic of Childhood

“When we were children the truth lived in our imaginations…” (2)

“Art is a team sport.” (2)

With the use of arts integration comes the enormous opportunity to bring every child the opportunity to love the process of learning, and to be engaged on the level of their own passion — this carries forth throughout their lives in anything else they want to learn.” – Donn Poll, executive director of OMA (Opening Minds Through the Arts) (3)

Remember: childhood is not an age but rather a state of mind.

Where Did the Creativity Go?

“All children are creative — they’re born that way!” (9)

“Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much.” – J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (9)

The message of Henry Ford over the years has been consistent: reduce cost and remove variation. Innovation, by its very nature increases cost and variation. … Innovation can be costly; the trick is to be innovative and profitable. (10)

Through our consulting experience, we have discovered that creativity abounds in all organizations…you simply have to unleash it!

Hey, Kids, Let’s Put on a Show!

So, don’t just copy your old and boring product or service — destroy, demolish, eradicate, nuke, vaporize, and zap it! Once you have totally wiped out the old, you can apply the first lesson from our musical history examples — to think like a director. (15)

BEGIN WITH THE STORY: “Our directors have to be masters at knowing how to tell a story. This means they must have a unified vision, one that will give coherence to the thousands of ideas that go into a movie.” – Ed Catmull (16)

BUILD THE SET: The setting is part of the creative experience — don’t overlook or shortchange it. (18) [VIA: a.k.a. “context.”]

RECRUIT THE CAST: Colorful, unique, memorable, magical moments will seldom be created by boring, myopic, unimaginative people! (19)

DESIGN THE BACKSTAGE PROCESSES: Remove the barriers between “backstage” processes and the “onstage” show, and watch magic happen! (21)

Remember: every business is show business! And it begins with a story…

Dream for Infinity and Beyond

Much of this chaos is because short-term mentality has become a way of life. … Commitment can be defined as “being intellectually or emotionally bound to a course of action.” (26)

Dreams really can come true when you keep a long-term focus. (35)

Never, ever compromise your long-term dream for the sake of short-term gains.

A New Way to Play “Follow the Leader”

“The ability to establish and manage a creative climate in which individuals and teams are self-motivated to the successful achievement of long-term goals in an environment of mutual respect and trust.” – from The Disney Way (38)

ESTABLISH A CLEAR VISION: The best leaders are excellent communicators … then trusting [their people] to do their jobs. (39)

“You can establish a company by fear or you can have a hierarchy that’s by choice. You say, ‘OK, you’re good at that role. You can have it.’ But still, you don’t make arbitrary decisions. You consult [communicate] with the whole collegiate body and when you think you have them convinced and they all feel like it’s the right decision to make, you make the decision.” – Alvy Ray Smith (39)

CREATIVE CLIMATE: Creative climates need leadership and a management style that helps them to develop and grow and allows them to have fun in the process. … “Instead of investing in ideas, we invest in people. We’re trying to create a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners.” – Randy Nelson (39) “Play is a part of our work.” – Nelson (41)

INDIVIDUALS AND TEAMS: …set[ting] people up for success by giving them all the information they need to do the job right without telling them how to do it.” – Ed Catmull (41) It’s a very disciplined process with project deadlines and delivery dates, but creativity is never squelched. (42)

“Creativity doesn’t follow titles; it just comes form where it comes from.” – Ed Catmull (43)

SELF-MOTIVATED PERSONNEL: Great leaders know that self-motivated people are essential to developing a creative culture.

Ninety percent of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get things done. – Peter Drucker

…why on earth would you need to micromanage anyone? (43) At Pixar…no organizational chart is consulted when it comes to solving problems, and more important, everyone resides within an environment that is totally open. (44) [VIA: Reminds me of the “lattice” vs. “ladders” concept by Terri Kelly of Gore.

“…it’s OK to hire people who are smarter than you are.” – Ed Catmull (44)


MUTUAL RESPECT AND TRUST: Great leaders seek individuals with unique talents who are willing to work with them, not for them. (45) “What’s equally tough, of course, is getting talented people to work effectively with each other.” – Catmull (46)

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.” – Catmull (46)

“The things we live by and teach our children are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.” – Walt Disney

Leadership may be boiled down to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” List all the things you hated that leaders have done to you. Do not do these to others! Next list all the things you loved that leaders have done to you. Do these to others!

Collaboration in the Sandbox

Kids don’t need to take “Sandcastle Building 101” to learn how to build a sandcastle. They learn from intense observation and by trial and error in a collaborative environment. (51)

“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” – Walt Disney (52)

…drawing class doesn’t just teach people how to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. (56)

“We integrate art and music into the learning because I believe that higher-order thinking comes when you integrate.” – Jan Vesely, cofounder of OMA (60) [VIA: Reminds me of The Medici Effect]

“It’s the heart of our model, giving people opportunities to fail together and to recover from mistakes together.” – Randy Nelson (60)

“Everyone at the company will tell you there are no bad ideas at Pixar, even if they don’t end up in a movie.” – Ed Catmull (60)

Pixar goes to great lengths to hire people who are interested in working together as a “network…in solving problems, building and supporting each other,” as Ed describes it. Four common proficiences — depth, breadth, communication, and collaboration — are vital to making “art a team sport.”

  • Depth — demonstrating mastery in a subject or a principle skill such as drawing or programming; having the discipline to chase dreams all the way to the finish line.
  • Breadth — possessing a vast array of experiences an interests; having empathy for others; having the ability to explore insights from many different perspectives; and being able to effectively generate new ideas by collaborating with an entire team. Randy described people who have breadth: “They amplify you. They want to know what you want to know.” In problem solving, they are the ones who lean in, rather than pulling back.
  • Communication — focusing on the receiver; receiving feedback to ascertain whether the message sent was truly understood. According to Randy, “Communication is not something the emitter can measure.” Only the listener can say, “I understand.”
  • Collaboration — bringing together the skills (including depth, breadth, and communication), ideas, and personality styles of an entire team to achieve a shared vision. “Yes, and…” (rather than “No, this is better”) is part of Pixar’s common lexicon that fosters collective creativity and keeps the vibe and energy in the room upbeat and alive.

Those who gain mastery in anything have become comfortable with the process of failure recovery. (62)

“…try, learn, and try again — failure recovery — is integral to making “art a team sport.” – Rick Wamer, OMA (64)

Choose your sandbox. Will it set the stage for opening minds through experiential collaborative learning opportunities or merely opening minds and pouring in the facts? (65)

“I happen to be an inquisitive guy and when I see things I don’t like, I start thinking why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them.” – Walt Disney

Innovation does not come from a miraculous revelation on the road to Damascus. It comes from habitual, nonstop collaboration!

Stand Together Against the Bullies

To avoid constant interference from bullies in suits, it’s important to establish specific milestones within your projects and invite the “suits” to a briefing or two. These milestones have three purposes: first, to present the current status and results achieved thus far; second, to continue selling the “dream”; and third, to gain management input. Remember to treat management as you would treat a customer — focus on getting them to embrace your dreams (72)

“I’m not interested in pleasing the critics. I’ll take my chances pleasing the audiences.” – Walt Disney

Remember: What is right isn’t always popular, and what is popular isn’t always right. Let your values be your guide.

The Skater Who Never Falls Will Never Win the Gold!

…to be successful, we need to learn how to fail an hows to respond to failure. What we call failure is really a learning process. (76)

…learning at a faster pace requires making mistakes at a faster pace. (77)

Here are ten ideas to encourage risk taking and a “try, learn, and try again” culture:

  1. Celebrate failure with the same intensity that you celebrate success.
  2. Become a prototype junky — there is no project too big that you shouldn’t be able to conduct a real-world test of it within a few weeks.
  3. Develop your own “skunk works” — teams given a high degree of autonomy and disencumbered by bureaucracy. (Skunk works is a term coined by Ben Rich and Kelly Johnson while working at Lockheed in 1943.) Don’t rely on corporate resources to complete your prototype; beg, borrow, or steal material, tools, and expertise to complete it.
  4. Dream BIG. As each team member to think of ten over-the-top, outlandish, eccentric, far-out, wacky, unheard-of, unorthodox ideas for your project. If they each can’t come up with ten ideas, recruit more idosyncratic thinkers who continue to try over-the-top ideas. Even if these ideas fail — learn, and try again.
  5. Don’t cry poor. Many innovative breakthroughs haven’t come from the formal “fat cats” in the R&D departments but from field operations scrounging around trying something new, learning, and trying again. Not having the budget is an excuse, not a barrier!
  6. Planning is OK, but don’t become a slave to the plan. General George Patton once said, “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan next week.” A plan must be flexible enough to allow many tries and retries.
  7. Use a “planning center” approach to track your plans. A planning center is a place where a team’s plans and prototypes are visually displayed and tracked.
  8. Forget about long planning meetings and reports. Walking into the planning center should give team members and management the current status on the project.
  9. It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Assume authority. Quickly review and record failures, then within forty-eight hours, try again. In most organizations, getting permission to try again takes countless meetings, reports, approvals, and often inquisitions to find the person responsible for the “failure.”
  10. You need a soul mate. Find a customer or supplier who is just as outlandish and daring as your team to help test and refine your prototypes and ideas.

Failure can be exciting. It captures the imagination. But…you’ve got to fail at the speed of change. And when you do, rejoice and learn!

Recess: Go Out and Play!

  • Play is an active form of learning that unites the mind, body, and spirit. Until at least the age of nine, children’s learning occurs best when the whole self is involved.
  • Play reduces the tension that often comes with having to achieve or needing to learn. In play, adults do not interfere and children relax. They return to the classroom ready to learn and be productive.
  • Children express and work out emotional aspects of everyday experiences through unstructured play.
  • Children permitted to play freely with peers develop skills for seeing another person’s point of view — cooperating, helping, sharing, and solving problems.
  • The development of children’s perceptual abilities may suffer when so much of their experience is through television, computers, books, worksheets, and media that require only two senses. The senses of smell, touch, and taste and the sense of motion through space are powerful modes of learning.
  • Children who are less restricted in their access to the outdoors gain competence in moving through the larger world. Developmentally, they gain the ability to navigate their immediate environs (in safety) and lay the foundation for the courage that will enable them eventually to lead their own lives.

If you have low morale, for every one dollar you spend, you get about twenty-five cents of value. If you have high morale, for every dollar you spend you get about three dollars of value. (86)

“Most businesses repress our natural tendency to have fun and to socialize. The idea seems that in order to succeed, you have to suffer. But I believe you do your best work when you are feeling enthusiastic about things.” – George Zimmer, CEO of Men’s Wearhouse (86)

How playful is your organization?

  • Is it common to hear laughter coming from employees?
  • Does the laughter stop or diminish when management is around?
  • Is the workplace humor good-natured constructive ribbing rather than destructive sarcastic criticism?
  • Does your boss usually have an optimistic and happy attitude?
  • When something gets screwed up, can team members step back and laugh at their mistake?
  • Do you have fun celebrations on a regular basis?
  • Is the physical workplace conducive to fun?
  • Do you engage your customers (internal or external) in your fun environment?
  1. Create a unique playground. …it just has to be what employees feel represents who they really are. … The new studio had to be a home, not a headquarters.
  2. Think Play!
  3. Allow personalized work spaces. [VIA: Reminds me of “Mark’s” cubicle at our place of work.]
  4. Celebrate!
  5. Grant employees permission to be recognized for their work by “outsiders.”
  6. Be a role model for mutual respect and trust.
  7. Laugh at yourself

When you take yourself too seriously, life ceases to be fun. (94)

A recent national Gallup study identified three types of employees: “engaged,” “not-engaged,” and “disengaged.” (94) [Obviously] “engaged employees are more productive, profitable, safer, create stronger customer relationships, and stay longer with their company than less engaged employees…” (95)

“Laugh hard, twice daily.” – Andrew Stanton (96)

The team that plays together stays together … and exciting things happen!

Forty-One Neat Things to Unleash Your Imagination

  1. Take a road trip.
  2. Collect artifacts that inspire good work.
  3. Go fact finding.
  4. Go to the park and play.
  5. Go to an art museum
  6. Encourage individual creative work spaces
  7. Visit your local fire department.
  8. Open a dream room.
  9. Declare a “Do Nothing, No Tech” day.
  10. Take quiet time.
  11. Product marketing teams: don’t forget your first name. Product
  12. Establish a “Jr. brain trust.” Select a group of children ages seven to twelve to act as advisors to your team. “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci
  13. Establish a “Sr. brain trust.”
  14. Celebrate failure of the month. Most failed projects follow these six phases: 1. enthusiasm; 2. disillusionment; 3. panic; 4. search for the guilty; 5. punishment of the innocent; 6. praise and honors for nonparticipants.
  15. Bring in an outside guest speaker.
  16. Stretch the limits of the comfort zone.
  17. Give your project or team a cool name.
  18. Give all team members an NTHR (Neat Things Happening Recorder).
  19. Don’t let the ankle biters get you.
  20. Ask “What if?” and “Why not?” Walt Disney said, “It’s fun doing the impossible.”
  21. Get everyone in the “sandbox” — all for one and one for all!
  22. Do something audacious every day.
  23. Embrace chaos and confusion.
  24. Hire someone who is your complete opposite.
  25. Share
  26. Do “smart” benchmarking. …seeing what you can learn from someone totally outside your industry.
  27. Get engaging.
  28. Innovation begins in human resources.
  29. Celebrate everything.
  30. “Bam! Kick it up a notch.”
  31. Partner with academia.
  32. Cross-functional innovation teams rock.
  33. Create a subsidiary organization for innovation.
  34. Decentralize
  35. Support innovation in your local school system.
  36. Conduct quarterly “Gong Shows.”
  37. Make everyone an innovator.
  38. Solve problems, don’t just make better products.
  39. Ask innovative questions — what, who, how, and where.
  40. Mentor innovators.
  41. Establish a department of intrapreneurism.

Unleash your imagination — innovate or die. The choice is yours! [VIA: “Play or die”]

How Do You Measure a Dream?

“Quality is the best business plan.” – John Lasseter (121)

Good was just not good enough for Walt. The quality of his films had to possess a hellacious mastery surpassing the audience’s wildest expectations. (121-2)

Any organization’s innovative process requires three metrics:

  1. Top leadership who is totally enamored with and enchanted by innovation, and who expects the same from everyone in the organization, from the boardroom to the storeroom.
  2. Frontline leadership who facilitates and encourages creative ideas from the entire team; a work environment that enables employees to quickly try new and innovative ways of doing their jobs, learn from their experiences, and try again.
  3. Tangible measurements that are meaningful to the business process.

Managing innovation by numbers alone will result in unimaginative and trite customer experiences!

“Let’s Make a Dent in the Universe” – Steve Jobs

The concept of quality is understood by children only in terms of what is real and what is meaningful to them. (125)

1. “Quality is the best business plan.” …there is no right way to do the wrong thing. (130) 2. the team is everything. “None of us is as smart as all of us.” – Ken Blanchard (130) Pixar is a place where working together works. (131)

We will always choose a quality-driven group of average performers who are committed to a team effort over a collection of egotistical, narcissistic prima donnas who are more concerned with their own individual greatness. (132)

Complacent teams equal mediocre results. Fully engaged and “interested” teams equal blockbuster results!

Ready, Set, Go!

The premis of this book is “lessons from the corporate playground” and how we can reawaken and apply the childlike innovative spirit that lives deep within us.

Here are our keys to creating your own corporate play ground. Remember: Innovate, don’t imitate… This is just a starting point!

  1. The story is king.
  2. Displayed thinking techniques — storyboarding.
  3. Improv.
  4. Plus-ing. Disney coined this term as a way of making a film, attraction, or idea better. … Our goal at Disneyland is to always give the people more than they expect.
  5. Collaboration (inside). “Collaboration for Pixar means amplification — by hooking up a number of human beings who are listening to each other, are interested in each other, bring a separate depth to the problem, bring breadth that brings them interest in the entire solution, allows them to communicate on multiple different levels, verbally, in writing, in feeling, in acting, in pictures. … Don’t diversify just because it is socially correct; do it because it makes good business sense.
  6. Collaboration (outside).
  7. Prototype. Try. Learn. Try again.
  8. Working on cool projects
  9. Training
  10. Fun. Play
  11. Transparency (show and tell).
  12. Celebrations. “Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.” – Phil Daniels (143)
  13. Brain trust.
  14. Dreamers with deadlines.
  15. Postmortems
  16. Quality is the best business plan.

“Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German philosopher (148)

Innovation cannot be ordered like a pizza. It requires dedicated leadership and a collaborative culture!

— VIA —

The principles found here may sound quite familiar to those who have studied a bit about leadership and management. What is fascinating to me, and an inquiry, is the industry they are in; that is, entertainment and especially graphic arts, animated entertainment. You hear resonances of Walt Disney all throughout this book, and no doubt he the major influence of the emergence of Pixar. But it begs the question for me of how much of this “creativity” is really driven by the kind of work they do. For example, I’m not so sure I want “creative” doctors, or even lawyers, construction workers, etc. The ethic that drives other disciplines is what “works,” not what is most “awe-inspiring.” So, I think it’s important to understand that while reading a book like this, and others on creativity.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that the ethics that drive the kind of culture are absolutely critical. The lessons on management, empowerment, trust, celebrations, quality, being enthusiastic, etc., are universal principles, and for that, I’m thankful to Capodagli and Jackson for their book.

In the appendix there is this story by John Lasseter that is just awesome, and it sums things up quite well:

Let me tell you a funny story. I took the family to see this film one weekend. I’ll go to see almost any film that’s good for the whole family. And so we’re sitting there watching this film, which I won’t name, and there are long stretches that are just not very entertaining. My little son — he was probably six at the time — was sitting next to me, and right in the middle of this dull section, he turns to me and says, “Dad? How many letters are in my name?” I must have laughed for five minutes. I thought, “Oh, man, this movie has lost this little boy. His mind has been wandering, trying to figure out how many letters there are in his name.” So I told my wife, Nancy, what he said, and she started laughing, and then the story went down the row through my whole family, our four other sons, and we’re sitting there as a family giggling and laughing. And I thought to myself, “If ever a child anywhere in the world leans over to their daddy during one of my movies and asks, ‘How many letters are in my name’ I’ll quit”