The company culture of Pixar Animation Studios
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The origin of Pixar is traced back to 1984 when John Lasseter the Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar joined the computer graphics division of Lucasfilms. Two years later Steve Jobs bought this unit and renamed it Pixar that went on to produce award winning short films, commercials and documentaries. The Company expanded its creative potentials to make its first computer animated movie, Toy Story in 1995 that marked the beginning of a new era in animation film industry. Pixar re-defined the meaning of success with major triumphs in the form of The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, and many others to follow. The Company was acquired by Disney in the year 2006, a strategic alliance that expanded the creative potentials of Pixar to further heights. The success of the company has been termed as dramatic and inspirational for other firms in the creative industry segment. The much talked about Pixar culture provides an interesting insight into how an organization can nurture the creative talents of its employees across different levels.
The research paper explores the different dimensions of the Pixar culture and its open door policy to understand the ways in which the organization has expanded its creative potentials to become one of the most innovative organizations in the industry. The objective of the paper is to analyse the impacts of the people management practices adopted at Pixar in promoting a creative work environment.
Theoretical analysis framework
Theoretical analysis provides any research work with the necessary facts and evidence that support the research findings and implications. In this section, the paper will focus on analysing the organizational culture of Pixar through two distinctive models – the “organizational aesthetics model” and “Handy (1985) or Harrison (1972) Model of culture.” The study of these two theoretical dimensions enable a deeper insight and understanding of how the structural design and practices within an organization shapes its workplace environment and employee attitudes. The study and understanding of these two theoretical dimensions have been used to analyse the Pixar culture that promotes creativity through an enabling work culture.
Organizational aesthetics model
“Aesthetics offers a new look into organizations, and a look at alternative ways of expressing and making meanings that deeply influence organizational interactions, behaviours, and understandings” (Taylor & Hansen, 2005). Aesthetics relate to our senses and contextual experiences that shape our knowledge and beliefs. Organizational activities and strategies are to a wide extent influenced by the social and contextual environment in which they exist. “The underlying assumption of the aesthetic approach to the study of organizations is that, although an organization is indeed a social and collective construct, it is not an exclusively cognitive one but derives from the knowledge-creating faculties of all the human senses” (Linstead & Hopfl, 2000).
According to this approach organizations are created through the re-definition and application of knowledge processing skills that are harnessed for productive gains. Since the organizational processes are widely impacted by the individual perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, values and reflections of the workforce that drive operational efficiencies. These are indicators of organizational aesthetics that bind the various elements into a more cohesive structure that helps in the production of goods and services for the larger community.
Recent Trend in Organization Aesthetics
The significance of such models is underlined by the increasing diversity of the workforce in present business environment and the difficulties faced in integrating the skills of individuals from varied knowledge sectors to develop a single product. Research studies have established that an understanding of the organizational aesthetics can help in improving managerial abilities to lead the team towards a more effective performance. Studies have revealed that the understanding of organizational aesthetics can help managers to identify the parameters of how to analyse and approach any issue. This particular aspect enables the organization to pursue a strategy well defined and supported by an understanding of human values and dimensions that impact work performance.
Organization Aesthetics in Pixar
Bill Capodagli, the author of “Innovate the Pixar Way: Lessons from the World’s most Creative Corporate Playground” in an interview with the Enterpriseleadership.org (2010) stated that Pixar has “a set of deeply rooted values that champion excellence, tap innovation, and encourage collaboration.” Following this observation, it can be inferred that the organizational practices and strategies adopted by Pixar have been a vital factor in promoting its creative talents. The question that this observation raises is what kind of organizational design and practices Pixar has that promotes such creativity.
Organizational structure plays a critical role in nurturing individual talent and providing the employees with the opportunity to deliver their true potentials Edgar Schein in 1985 observed that organizations can be broadly categorised into two types – Organization A that adopts an open environment facilitated by free flow of communication and less formal atmosphere; and organization B that supports a closed door structure featured by formal work procedures and low interactivity among employees. Pixar belongs to the Organization A type that exhibits an open culture (Schein, 2004). This kind of organization supports team based work culture. The success formula of Pixar is based on team work, collaboration and free flow of communication between individuals. The high level of interaction and flow of communication within the organization is promoted by its flat organizational structure. The organization is founded on remarkable management practices that discourage hierarchical system of reporting. The non hierarchical organizational structure promotes responsibilities and motivates the employees to put in their best at work resulting in high performing organizations. However, such work culture demands strong commitment and high level of energy from the employees. The operating principles of Pixar is based on freedom to communicate with anyone, a work environment that is safe for everyone to offer ideas, and staying close to innovations happening in the academic community (Catmull, 2008).
The creative focus of the organization has been on harnessing its human resource potentials to the optimum through the application of aesthetic organizational principles (McElroy & Morrow, 2010). This involves providing its employees with a work environment that is most informal with all amenities and luxuries that enable the stimulation of the creative senses of the workforce (Buzalka, 2006). The company adopts a non-hierarchical organization structure that encourages associates to actively participate in the decision making process at all stages. The organization supports employee empowerment in the form of supportive management practices that focuses on employee skills development and promoting participative leadership style. The lack of formal reporting lines and accountability of employees is compensated with mentors who assist the new comers into the organization and guide them through various stages of career progression. The ability of the organization to create and sustain innovation at work is dependent on speed, transparency and accountability (Hamilton, 2005).
Organizational design is to a large extent guided by the flow of information across various levels and departments. Entrepreneurs re-engineer business processes to accommodate a flatter form of organization structure that necessitates free flow of information and knowledge to the workforce. Organizational structure plays a pivotal role in determining organizational culture and values, communication lines and the extent of employee involvement in decision making process. The levels of reporting and accountability framework of a company determine the corporate culture and work environment existing within the company. In current business context, entrepreneurs re-engineer business processes to accommodate a flatter organization structure that necessitates free flow of information and knowledge to the workforce. Knowledge and learning culture forms the key to business success in today’s competitive industry. Pixar has managed to leverage existing technology tools to create competitive advantage through enhancing its competencies and skills to adapt to new systems and innovate work processes for launching and creating new ideas. The effectiveness of such work processes is largely impacted by employee skills, competencies and access to relevant information.
In the organizational context, knowledge is a tool that helps the organization to achieve strategic goals and objectives. These goals include generating a reputation for technical expertise, translating expertise into new business ideas, gaining new experience in specific areas to achieve cost advantage and optimum use of internal resources. At Pixar the open organization design facilitates interaction between employees that promotes teamwork. Such initiatives contribute to organizational productivity by providing the employees with a suitable physical environment to work in. Pixar presents a fine blending of learning and team work assisted by an open organizational design that enables the company to roll out new ideas and creative products for their target audience.
Advantages of Organizational Aesthetics
Workplace design and physical office environment plays a significant role in enhancing organizational productivity and performance. Research studies have concluded that “improvements in office design and management are not the only consideration for organizational productivity, but they have an important role to play; offices should be considered as a potential asset rather than just a space to house employees” (Charles & Zweirzchowski, 2004). Organizational aesthetics take into account the need for designing workspaces to meet the work process requirements. Adequate space designing for privacy of work, open office plans to promote teamwork and interaction between co-workers support the organizational goals by providing the employees with the desired workspace.
Technology has created new expectations and influenced consumer behavior to include a wide gamut of options and possibilities that can be explored by organizations to launch new trends and range of products. Such business models are supported by increased collaboration and interaction between employees across different departments. The open design office structure supported by Pixar enables the employees to communicate and discuss freely the work issues and details. Discussions and deliberations on work issues are effective in promoting work efficiency and enable the companies to come up with million dollar ideas. The right mix of design and functionality while planning office spaces can have a positive impact on organizational productivity and performance through reduced operational costs in the form of shared resources and effective teamwork.
Types of office design
The conventional office design and workplace layout have undergone massive transformations over the past few decades. The previous sections have elaborated on the significance of organizational aesthetics in developing creative potentials within the firm and the analysis highlights the impacts that structural design has on employee productivity and performance. Efficient workplace design can positively impact employee motivation levels and satisfaction. Theoretical frameworks in this context have emphasized the significance of workplace design and office layout plans in supporting organizational goals, work processes, innovative culture and business values.
Bill Capodagli in an interview with the Credit Union Magazine recently commented that the success behind Pixar lay in its conceptualisation of a corporate playground that enabled its employees to relax and enjoy within the organization. “When you go there, you may see people playing football or swimming in an Olympic sized pool. It has created an atmosphere where work is fun – working hard and playing hard” (Capodagli – Credit Union, 2010). Pixar has adopted an open office design that enables its employees to share ideas, conceptualise new designs and initiate new practices for effective results. An analysis of the effectiveness of the office design theories put forward by Duffy (1997) reveals interesting insights into the Pixar model.
Duffy (1997) in his works had proposed four distinct types of office design namely – den, club, hive and cell. The matrix given below illustrates the extent to which these four office design types support interaction and autonomy in organizations –
The work culture at Pixar shows a high degree of team work and interaction between employees. The organization as studied in the previous sections supports a participative decision making process. The daily work of the employees is reviewed by peers and managers for assessing the effectiveness of outcomes (Capodagli, 2010). Hence the work environment at Pixar supports limited autonomy combined with high level of interactivity that is characterized by the Den office design as postulated by Duffy (1997). The effectiveness of such office design is emphasized by its contribution in motivating and inspiring employees towards creativity. Such workplace design according to Van der Voodt (2004) promotes a transparent organizational structure, enables employee empowerment, encourages team work, promotes learning, facilitates free flow of information, allows increased collaboration at work and creates a motivational environment. It can be inferred from the above discussion that organizational design and workplace layout must focus on enabling increased collaborative environment within the departments and hierarchies.
Organization Culture and Workplace Environment
The previous section highlighted the significance of organizational aesthetics and workplace design in shaping the Pixar work culture. However, the analysis of the success mantra of Pixar cannot be complete without an insight into its organizational culture that is reflected in its workplace environment. Organization culture defines the organizational belief, values and norms shared by the employees. An organization is shaped by the culture that predominates in work environment, employee behaviour and managerial attitude. Pixar adopts an organization culture that defies all traditional theories related to managing and running a business establishment.
Conventional management practices focused on bureaucratic controls and centralised decision making system that demarcated distinctive roles for each individuals. The evolving concepts of organizational culture and practices focus more on employee welfare and development plans that inspire the workforce to display proactive behaviour at work. One of the distinctive challenges faced by all organizations today is motivating its employees to achieve higher levels of performance and build a work climate that induces positive attitude to work amongst its employees. Motivation is a key area where the organizational management needs to stand out in order to achieve a high degree of employee creativity skills in solving business problems. Opportunity oriented, reward oriented, freedom to explore and work on their own are some of the factors which contribute to a high degree of motivation which gives solidarity to the company and promotes a good organizational culture. A high degree of employee motivation ensures that employees work freely and without reservations in achieving their desired goals. They are also given the freedom to work on their own to allow creative ideas and hence innovative practices to grow. This would not be possible in a restricting environment where the employees do not have the room to develop and grow their intrinsic creativity skills.
Pixar adopted the innovative and creative approach to expand its market potentials and gain new grounds in an emerging industry. The promoters of the Company ensured that the team based work approach promoted creative talents of its employees and nurtured the potentials of the workforce through an enabling corporate learning environment. “This is a new kind of movie studio that not only invents its own technology, much like a whiz-bang Silicon Valley Company, but also comes up with new production methods and organizational innovations that bring unheard of discipline to the crazy business of making movies” (Schlender, 2004).
Model of culture
Different models of organizational culture have been proposed by researchers and academicians. Such models provide the basis for understanding the context in which organizations operate within the existing business environment. One of the models proposed by Roger Harrison (1972) suggested that organizational culture is primarily of four types that include power, role, task/achievement and person/support (Cartwright & Cooper, 2000). This model was further researched by Handy to provide four distinctive categories of organization culture. The four categories have been identified as role culture, power culture, person culture, and task culture.
The role culture reflects bureaucratic organization that takes into account the procedures and position of employees to define the existing work culture. The power culture is influenced by the control of individuals at the head who run the whole show for the business. The person culture is shaped by the leader-subordinate relationship that accounts for the existing work culture. The task culture is based on impact of individual knowledge and expertise that influences the work culture and environment (Itzen & Nerwman, 2005).
The organizational culture displayed at Pixar focuses on increased collaboration and team work culture. The creativity at Pixar is “fostered daily by an open collaborative atmosphere in which every member of the team is engaged in the process and commited to a common goal – in this case, a good entertaining story” (Kiedaisch, 2010). The company adopts an integrated approach towards its people development strategies based on group learning initiatives and team work focus. One of the mechanisms adopted by organizations today is the reinforcement of team work that provides the individuals with the autonomy and freedom to act according to the need of the hour. Teams at Pixar are an integral part of operational processes and the organization relies extensively on teams to perform strategic functions. The team learning process is not only innovative and inspiring to the members but it also helps the organization devise new strategies and creative ideas that can work wonders for the business.
Hence it can be concluded that Pixar displays task culture where individual expertise and skills are integrated with organizational capabilities and resources to produce new ideas and product designs. The task culture brings individuals working on specific tasks together to contribute to the completion of a bigger task. The work approach focuses on completing the job at hand successfully and more emphasis is given to a collaborative approach that necessitates the coming together of differently skilled people to accomplish the goal. Hence this kind of work culture promotes an informal work environment where decision making is usually reached through discussions and consensus between the employees. This type of work culture is also characterized by increased interaction and exchange of information between members.
Suggested applicable solutions
“In order for an organization to remain relevant and to compete in pursuit of its mission, management of organizations must pay attention to both ends of the process, generating creative ideas frequently and utilizing its innovation process to realize the potential value of those ideas” (McLean, 2005). Organizations operating in a competitive business environment depend on innovation and creativity through the adoption of latest technology tools and applications to drive market advantage in their favour. Management of technology and its judicious application in work processes facilitate the firms to deliver high quality products and superior work performance that is driven by an enabling work culture. Adopting work practices that promote creativity and innovation within firms can be a challenging task since the application of such business models are impacted by the human resource strategies, managerial capabilities and resource availability (Gilmartin, 1999). Studies of such business models in creative organizations have proved the effectiveness of these strategies that promote innovation and a positive work culture within the workforce.
An analysis of the competitive industry environment provides a clear picture on the existing market environment and its current trends. The driving economic forces that guide the market movements and emergent technology trends are significant to the analysis of markets and help organizations like Pixar to define appropriate strategies to retain competitive advantage. Futuristic technologies are envisioned to create better and increased utility of existing products and services for improved applications and heightened consumer satisfaction. However, the effective utilisation of such technology trends depends on the creativity of its manpower. Creativity contributes to the generation of new ideas and help companies in distinguishing their products and services from their competitors in the market. Pursuing a creative organization approach must focus on developing the human resource of the organization.
The analysis of Pixar work culture and organizational aesthetics have highlighted some significant points in context of strengthening the innovative capabilities of a company. While office workspace design and structure play a significant role in influencing a positive work environment the role of organizational culture and strategic practices involving team work, participative leadership approach and employee empowerment in promoting creativity among employees cannot be ignored. The guiding principle behind managerial strategies and focus of the organization has been nurturing relationships and building trust among employees that helps in creating an amiable and creative work environment. “If we get that right, the result is a vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places” (Catmull, 2008).
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