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.”
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.
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”.
- Pixar computer artist David Lally’s Twitter