To Infinity and Beyond

Pixar, as a business, teaches us a lot about what is possible and that business models and processes can be vehicles for humans to move beyond possible.

images    Pixar exists to delight. They want to entertain you, and to offer an experience you can share with others. But they also want to ignite your imagination –to bring a sense of wonder and whimsy to your life, and to warm your heart and remind you of the beauty and possibility there is in the world. Pixar is virtually flawless in its delivery of movies that achieve this. Film after film, they tell a beautiful story and cultivate an ardent fan base. And they do this by being incredibly thoughtful about their operations.

The studio is trying to bring something completely fresh and deeply moving to the screen. That means that their employees have to take risks with new concepts, techniques and story lines. They have to be fearless in their idea generation. And they have to be in tune with their customer and what will resonate with them.

A HUMAN ENVIRONMENT
Pixar wants to foster unbridled creativity. One way they do this is by creating an environment that inspires.  They want their people to broaden the innovation funnel so that they can generate as many new ideas as possible. The more ideas they can generate, the richer the end product will be because it will be the result of hundreds, and even thousands of ideas. The cream will inevitably rise to the top, but that one great idea has to be present in the huge population of ideas at the widest part of the funnel or you can’t have it at the end of the process.

One way you get people to generate lots of creative new ideas is to create a workspace that inspires. Instead of cubicles, at Pixar, employees design their own workspaces. These can be anything from a small cartoon-like cottage to a treehouse. The rationale is that when people are comfortable and feel safe in their surroundings they are more likely to generate the kind of “out-there” ideas needed to create a great end product. The offices in the pictures below tap into this childlike place of wonder that has led to many of Pixar’s great ideas. On a group level, Pixar offices also want to create collaboration. Jobs commented that “If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity.”

rtuk_feature_pixar_19 pixar-office-features-indoor-cottageses

 

MATCHING NOT RANKING

Employees at Pixar are matched based on complementary skills and interest areas. They are not ranked by seniority in a traditional sense. With the matching, the aim is to empower every member of the team, no matter what their age or experience level may be to share their ideas. To get a to a product that surprises the audience and delights, you need everyone on the team to feel liberated and safe to go out on a limb with one another. Ranking employees by seniority and titles, as a typical company does, can stifle this process and reduce the idea generation that happens at the beginning of the funnel that is so crucial.

 

RESONANCE WITH THE CUSTOMER

Finally, Pixar stays close to the consumer –doing everything in their power so that the product will resonate for them. This means incredible attention to detail so that the viewer can really connect with references made in the film. Fascinatingly, Pixar does extensive research country by country to learn their local predilections. Pixar’s most recent film Inside Out is a fun example of this. There are a number of changes that were made on a individual country-level so that the symbolism was relevant to that cultural context.

A good example of this is a scene where the main character, Riley, is shown in a flashback as a toddler refusing to eat her broccoli. Broccoli as the food choice for the scene resonated with the U.S. audience, but in version of the film shown in Japan, broccoli is replaced by bell peppers. The change was made when market research showed that in Japan peppers are more disliked than broccoli. Pete Docter, a Pixar Director, said, “we learned that some of our content wouldn’t make sense in other countries. For example, in Japan, broccoli is not considered gross. Kids love it. So we asked them, ‘What’s gross to you?’ They said green bell peppers, so we remodeled and reanimated three separate scenes replacing our broccoli with green peppers.”

The scene is shown here in both the American and Japanese versions.

inside-out-broccoli copy

Operations that keep the customer central to the process serve to further enable the studio to achieve its business goals.

The studio’s film Toy Story is about what’s possible. “To infinity…and beyond” is about shattering our perceptions of what human ability is. Pixar, as a business, teaches us a lot about what is possible and that business models and processes can be vehicles for humans to move beyond “possible”.

 

 

  1. https://hbr.org/2008/09/how-pixar-fosters-collective-creativity
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-inside-out-has-different-scenes-in-other-countries-2015-7
  3. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2015/07/30/inside_out_director_pete_docter_explains_why_pixar_re_animated_certain_scenes.html
  4. http://officesnapshots.com/2012/07/16/pixar-headquarters-and-the-legacy-of-steve-jobs/
  5. http://99u.com/articles/16408/how-to-build-a-collaborative-office-space-like-pixar-and-google
  6. Pixar computer artist David Lally’s Twitter
  7. http://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-inside-out-has-different-scenes-in-other-countries-2015-7

 

 

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9 thoughts on “To Infinity and Beyond

  1. This is excellent – the view into their creative world and how setting up a warm, inviting and comfortable space can produce extraordinary results is something I hadn’t know about. Often times when I watch these movies, I wonder how much work each small detail requires by the staff, and I can only imagine that their attention to detail and flawless production is ruthless. To live in a culture that requires that much detail oriented work must have the very best of work environments. Their model and research driven production style will ensure they continue to make classics which inspire us all.

  2. Hi Roxy, I loved reading this post! It is really fun how Pixar’s operating model aligns with their business model of “possibility.” I had no idea that the Pixar team modifies their films for the proper cultural context. I found this “resonance with the customer” section to be incredibly interesting. Something that I thought of when I read your post is how Pixar does a fabulous job resonating with customers of all ages, too. They have a unique ability to speak to a 7-year-old on one level in the film, and to speak to an adult at an entirely different level, as well. Certain jokes are meant for the parents, which we love, yet the child has no idea. I think of Toy Story and Inside Out as two films that are loved by the old and young, alike. Pixar’s ability to create so deeply (relating to cultures, age, etc.) I think sets apart a Pixar film from that of any competitor. Great creative post!

  3. I love Pixar movies! And I really enjoy learning more about the company. Their consumer focus and country oriented seems to be very succesfull. Their movies also create an impact even in the Brazilian culture. One exemple: I participated in a leadership training about team work and the speaker based her class in the Pixar movie “The Incredibles”. About workspace, the photos you uploaded reminded me of “Up”. I wonder if these offices’ design helped them better understand the relationship of the protagonist with his house.

  4. I am a huge fan of Pixar and the way that they go about creating some of the most innovative and heartfelt stories in movies today. I recently attended the Boston Museum of Science exhibit on Pixar and I am blown away by the lengths they go through to make these things happen. I think something that Pixar does incredibly well is meld art and science. Reading what you have here about how they create an environment for creativity reminded me a lot of the science behind their innovative technology as well. In “Brave” the team was met with the incredible challenge of modeling animated hair. They developed a whole new way of modeling hair to get the images just right. Check out this link for a little bit about it! http://www.thewire.com/technology/2012/06/brave-advances-quest-perfect-animated-hair/53845/

    Pixar is incredible and its amazing to see how innovative they are in both the creative and technical side.

    1. Really cool piece. Thanks Bryan.

  5. I loved this post!! It was very interesting to learn how a creative company like Pixar also has to think about linking their operating model to their business strategy. I wonder how their rules and processes change once it’s time to create the movie (vs come up with the idea) – does the same creative, high-risk, high-reward environment prevail during movie production, when attention to detail is paramount?

  6. I loved learning more about Pixar’s operating model in your post! Often times, as consumers of a product, in this case the Pixar movies, we are very aware of the company’s business model but less knowledgable of the details of their operating model. The points you highlighted here are very interesting and clearly tie to Pixar’s business model of “delighting” their customers by opening their eyes to the realm of possibilities. Your post mentions several intangible aspects of their operating model such as the organizational structure, innovation processes, and culture. Some other intangible aspects I would love to learn more about is around their human capital, specifically their recruiting and selection, performance incentives, and skills and capabilities training.

    Although very different industries, one can draw similarities between Pixar’s innovation management and one within a pharmaceutical company, most notably the focus on a “blockbuster” end product. In industries with a strong focus on idea generation and as highly creative as Pixar, I would imagine there are some unique human capital practices to incentivize employees to be constantly innovating and finding the next billion dollar idea. As we saw in the Wyeth case, the role of incentives and establishing targets was critical to the company’s operations and achievement of their business model. Additionally, I am curious about how Pixar recruits, selects, and develops top talent. As we also saw in Wyeth, there was a debate between the relative importance of people vs processes in scientific R&D and I am curious how this translates to the highly creative, animated film industry. I hunch that there is a greater importance placed on the people and therefore wonder what recruitment and development practices Pixar has set in place.

  7. Roxy, awesome post, really interesting piece, especially how some scenes are actually changed depending on cultural context. I am curious more about your thoughts on the “matching not ranking” thought. While I see a huge benefit to equality in spurring creativity, I worry that having no hierarchy would reduce accountability. How does Pixar try to maintain accountability and order in decision-making with absolutely no hierarchy? Thanks!

  8. Great post Roxy! Like everyone else above I love Pixar as well, but wondered how you viewed sequels fitting inot Pixars ability to innovate and stay relevant. For most film studios, the possibility to build a franchise is a dream come true as it can guarantee steady returns in an industry known for its high volatililty. Pixar has already produced franchises with multiple films (Toy Story and Cars) but in your opinion does this go against their ethos of creativity?

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