Innovate The Pixar Way: Review Of A New Book On Developing An Innovation Culture

Innovate The Pixar Way: A Book About Developing An Innovation Culture.

Innovate The Pixar Way – Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground offers inspiration to any leader who is seeking to make her organisation more creative and innovative.

Pixar is, of course, the animation powerhouse whose creations include Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

The values and principles that underpin an ‘innovation culture’ have been described in many books and academic papers. Innovate The Pixar Way reminds us of many of them including: Taking a long term view, creating a learning culture, not letting hierarchy get in the way, creating high performing creative teams, encouraging risk taking and learning from failure rather than punishing it.

Notwithstanding that this is well-trodden territory, Innovate The Pixar Way is a stimulating read which brings a fresh perspective to the topic of developing an innovation culture.

There is detail enough to guide those who are looking to bring about significant cultural change within an organisation. It might also serve as a useful reference for those already in the process of cultural change and looking for additional reassurance that their strategy will pay off.

This is Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson’s second collaboration. Their first book The Disney Way (McGraw-Hill 1999, fully revised and updated in 2006) dissected the Disney strategy of Dream, Believe, Dare, Do.

Innovate The Pixar Way holds a tight focus on its subject. The result is that we are presented with a fairly detailed picture of a ‘model innovative company’. We also get to see just how the elements that make up an innovation culture interact together to deliver great creative products, engaged employees and excellent financial returns.

Turn The Workplace Into A 'Playground'

The authors’ key thesis focuses on the opportunity to turn a place of work into a ‘playground’. By doing this, as Pixar have done, they suggest that a company can unleash the creative potential of all employees.

To the cynical corporate leader a ‘playground’ might sound like a place where no one does anything useful, and no one makes any money. However, Pixar’s esteemed reputation in the film industry and its financial results over the last fifteen years, quickly put pay to such criticism.

Indeed, while many academics and corporate leaders debate the need for companies to increase workforce productivity and in particular to ‘harness discretionary effort,’ Pixar has already found ways to do these things and is reaping the benefits.

This is a future orientated book that shows us how if we want to get more out of people; more creativity and higher morale; we have to allow those people to bring more of themselves to work. Not just the thinking, compliant, focused and analytical side, but also their playful, imaginative and passionate sides.

Companies need this ‘well rounded’ workforce because, as the authors warn, we are now in an age of ‘rapid innovation’. Companies need teams that can journey fearlessly into the unknown to create products and services that will fulfil their customers’ dreams.

Business as 'Show Business.'

A second key insight in the book suggests using the metaphor of ‘putting on a show’ as a way to run a business. Better still, how about viewing your business – whatever business it is - through the eyes of a (movie) director?

Movie directors have led us to expect nothing less than excitement, inspiration and beautiful visuals in films. By taking such an approach in other businesses, leaders could ‘raise the bar.’

 “Every business is show business,’’ we are told.  And “you only have one chance to deliver that magical, magnetic, enchanting experience to your customer.’

Delivering An Innovation Culture.

The book is full of details about how Pixar does deliver on the key aspects of an innovation culture. The ‘campus’ has been designed to encourage interaction. There are plenty of places to ‘play’ including volleyball courts and a swimming pool. Individuals have the freedom to demonstrate their creativity by personalising their own workspaces,and employees have the freedom to approach anybody without recourse to hierarchical patterns. This means that we see Pixar as a living and breathing innovative organisation rather than the conceptual ideal of same that has been portrayed in other books.

Unfortunately when we come to the challenges that Pixar may have faced over the years there is perhaps not quite enough detail.

At one stage Pixar Director Pete Docter is quoted saying “all our films are failures at some point.” I would like to have heard more about this stage - when the films are still in development, still needing to be perfected and crafted. What specifically do the leaders at Pixar do to maintain morale? Also, how does the “long term culture” hold up when the teams come under acute short term pressures?

Nevertheless, I am convinced that the strong values of the Pixar company, the mutual respect and trust for each other and focus on quality, must stand the business in good stead to avoid the type of day to day skirmishes that undermine team working and productivity on a daily basis in many organisations.

The consistent message is that by creating the right innovation environment you end up with an energised and enthusiastic workforce who care and want to solve problems and contribute.

I was glad to see that there was at least some consideration of the topic of measuring innovation performance. Admittedly this is quite brief. Having identified the fundamentals of an innovation culture, the authors, not surprisingly are keen to point out how much of the critical aspects of an innovation culture are in fact intangible and very difficult to measure.

This view is presented alongside summarised revenues and costs for the last ten or so Pixar movies. Indeed these particular ‘innovation measures’ are impressive.

Again there is little guidance for the leader who needs to continue to champion his strategy to build an innovation culture, who is not seeing strong financial returns as quickly as Pixar did, and who perhaps is starting to feel some resistance to the strategy from higher-ups and shareholders.

The final stage of the book includes 16 pointers to create your own corporate playground. My favourite of which was “work on cool projects.“ This points to encouraging the right attitude among teams so that they can reframe any project in such a way that it excites and inspires them.

Another favourite pointer ‘dreamers with deadlines’ reminds us that innovation culture is not just about blue sky thinking. Delivering innovation results on time is also critical.

The Other Corporate 'Playgrounds'

So is Pixar the only place that could be described as a corporate playground? An appendix provides details of six other companies that similarly strive to innovate continuously and to unleash the creative potential of their people. These include Google and Nike.

Readers of books about innovation and creativity probably have even higher expectations of getting a fresh perspective on their topic than readers of some other categories, and  Innovate The Pixar Way does indeed stimulate and inspire.

The metaphors of workplace as ‘playground’, and business as ‘show business’, are memorable and relevant to the 21st century.

Even if readers are not ready to commit to these strategies on behalf of their organisation, having read about their context in Innovate The Pixar Way, some may want to bear them in mind as possible questions on an innovation audit. Are we creating magic for customers? Do our people get the chance to be playful?

Sceptics may feel that when it comes to workplace culture, it’s different in the ‘creative industries’. While Pixar may not be a wholly transferable model of an innovation culture, the authors are keen to point out they are not portraying it as such. They make it clear that a company has to develop its own creative culture.

However, I cannot imagine any company that could not, at the very least, learn a thing or two from Pixar.

Innovate The Pixar Way – Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground (208p McGraw-Hill 2010)


Score as a tool to assist growth and innovation in an organisation: 4/5

Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the Worlds Most Creative Corporate Playground