To Reset Culture: Unleash People’s Creativity

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In the next to last chapter of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, author Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, discusses his solution to a significant problem: how to address one negative side of substantial growth. He noticed that by hiring new people who didn’t have the same cultural experiences as the “founding” members and they, out of awe and respect for the firm’s history, were reluctant to introduce new ideas which might upset the existing stream of growth. They didn’t fully understand the struggle and risk that success had entailed, and while they may have had ideas on how to simplify things, they were self-censoring.

Recognizing that a “good crisis go to waste”, he realized that a crisis was emerging at Pixar: (1) production costs were rising and needed to be reined in; (2) external economic forces were putting pressure on the business and (3) the central tenet of the culture – that good ideas can come from anywhere – was faltering.  To reinvigorate the studio, they created “Notes Day” to harness the brainpower of all employees and accepted the fact that making company-wide changes would be an ongoing, incremental process, the focus was on collaboration, determination and candor.

Pixar’s leadership (35 producers and directors) gathered for a two day off-site to focus on the two key issues; rising costs of films and shift in the culture of speaking out.  The group of 35 producers and directors decided to close the company for a day and had people meet in a variety of different small groups based on a variety of issues. In advance of the scheduled day, over 1000 employees started talking to one another, sharing feelings, and thoughts on how they could make Pixar better – keeping their eye on the goal that had been set for them – how Pixar in 2017 would make films more cost-effectively and had a more open and creative culture.

What happened?

  • Thousands of ideas were reduced to 106 topics in 171 sessions managed by 138 facilitators (who received special training) organized into categories like Training, Environment and Culture, Cross-show Resource Pooling; Tools and Technology, and Workflow.
  • Ideas were discussed to generate three foci: What do we do to achieve this success? What are the benefits for Pixar? and What are the next steps we need to take to get from here to there?
  • For instance, while the original goal was to produce a more efficient 18,500 person-week movie, the groups actually chose to focus on – and achieved – producing 12,000 person-week films! (As some said when first proposing this goal – GET RADICAL!)
  • Topics attracted all kinds of people from across the company. For instance, the session “Developing and Appreciating a Great Workplace” – was challenged to address this issue; “It’s 2017. Nobody at the studio behaves as if they are entitled. How did we accomplish this?”  People choose this session because the word “entitled” resonated with people including a Pixar executive chef, a woman in Legal, a woman in Finance, a veteran animator, a man from Systems, and another dozen people.  What was striking is how much they had in common – discussing incidents where other people felt “entitled” and it was obstructing good work.

The key take-aways:

  • Everyone now had a common experience in which they knew that people care, and are willing to change.
  • People met new people throughout the company they never would have met under ordinary circumstances.
  • Everyone appreciated how the company created an environment fostering introspection and feedback with grace and humility, and enabled everyone to be a leader for change in both process and results.

If you need to improve your culture, enable people to challenge assumptions, empower people to take on new responsibilities and institutionalizing the changes, read this inspiring chapter. Then share your thoughts, ideas and experiences. (If you want to conduct an off-site capable of producing such changes, we can facilitate what we call a Strategic Leadership Advance (not a “management retreat”) See for details.