Creating a culture of fun in the workplace helps to unleash the creative potential of employees. Sarah O’Carroll speaks to culture expert Bill Capodagli about how Pixar and Disney have created an innovative and creative place to work
It’s the type of place where you’ll see employees going
down the hallway on a scooter, meetings are inter
rupted by koosh balls thrown from one executive to
another, employees are playing fussball or swimming
in an Olympic size swimming pool – or you may even
not see them at all, as they have been asked to leave the
building to go away and come back with some creative
ideas. It’s not like a “workplace”, but it’s what Bill
Capodagli describes as a corporate playground.
This is Pixar. The company that created animated fea
ture films such as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo
and the recent Academy Award winning movie Up. It was
established in 1984, when chief creative officer John Las
seter left his animation job at Disney to join filmmaker
George Lucas’ special effects computer group, which later
became known as Pixar.
Pixar attributes its successes to finding and developing
world-class creative talent and combining this with pro
prietary technology to develop computer-animated feature
films with memorable characters and heart-warming sto
ries. Fundamental to this is a unique culture which enables
the company to unshackle peoples’ imaginations and cre
ate the best products and services in the market.
Putting fun back into work
One might say it’s all very well to have such a fun and cre
ative workforce in a movie studio. But according to Bill
Capodagli, author of Innovate the Pixar Way, this way of
working can be replicated in any organisation, and not just
that, but it is this exact way of working that is the secret
to successful organisations.
Only through creating a culture of fun and stripping
out the monotonous drone of the working day can com
panies really unleash the creative talent of their employ
ees, he says.
“Too often, too many organisations feel that in order to
succeed work has to be hard, it needs to be boring, it needs
to be work!” he says. “Organisations often think that if
people are having fun, then they’re not productive enough
and that you need to suffer in order to produce a great
product. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Even working
with some very technical teams of global engineering firms,
fun was a very important part of their team and as a result
they were highly, highly successful.”
There are many ways in which companies can intro
duce some fun into the workplace. Some ways to liven up
meetings, for example, is by introducing stress relieving
tactics such as koosh balls that can be thrown around, or
blowing bubbles to relieve some of the tension, and joking
and kidding around with one another to break potential
“I think having a good time at work and feeling com
fortable enough to joke and kid around with one another
helps in the collaboration that needs to take place for really
great teams to exist,” says Capodagli. “When you take
yourself too seriously, that is when work starts becoming
a drudgery. You need to take your job seriously but your
self not as seriously.”
This culture of playfulness must all stem from the lead
ership team, says Capodagli, which in Pixar is very much
the case. The leadership team should make sure that peo
ple are allowed to have fun, and although the leader may
not be the practical joking type who is as much fun as
someone else, he has to make it his job to create an atmos
phere where it’s okay to enjoy oneself.
Is fun in the average workplace a realistic idea?
But can this type of “fun” culture be replicated in a com
pany which is not typically synonymous with fun – such
as a financial services company, a book publishing com
pany or a refrigeration company?
According to Capodagli, it’s all to do with creating the
story of the organisation. The motto in Pixar and Disney
is: “The story is king.”
One of the ways of creating this culture of fun is ensur
ing that every person in the organisation knows what their
own dream is and what the company’s dream is. Therefore
they become excited about what they’re doing and where
they are going, and while they are having fun in work they
are still working towards a common goal and vision.
“At Pixar they say the story is king. And every team has
a story and revolves around telling that story,” he says. “The
same thing needs to happen whether you are publishing
books or making refrigerators or selling hot dogs; what is
the story of your organisation, does everybody know what
the story is, the mood and how to engage your customer, and
how to make your customer part of that story – whether it
is making a product or providing a service so that every
one on the team knows their role in that story.”
Capodagli equates it back to the show business model
that Walt Disney created. Although your role may be a
supporting role backstage, Capodagli says you know how
important it is to the entire production. “When people
know what they are doing within the organisation then
the mood within the organisation needs to be collabora
tive, and the way to make it happen is to make it a fun
The magic of orientation
One of the most effective things that HR can do (and what
Walt Disney and Pixar each do) is to create a comprehen
sive, high quality orientation process. This does not have
to deal with policies, rules, forms and insurance benefits;
instead it should deal with the visions and the values of the
organisation. Capodagli says that in orientation employ
ees should learn about the “unofficial rules” of the job.
One example of the unofficial rules Disney employees
hear is that it’s everybody’s job to clean up the park.
Capodagli gives the example of an hourly employee who
was walking behind the recently hired vice president of
Disney and noticed he stepped over some litter on the
ground without picking it up. The employee picked it up
and brought it to his office saying: “You apparently for
got that it’s everybody’s job to keep our park clean.” Both
employees are still working for the company.
“You can’t dictate the values of an organisation. Peo
ple need to embrace those values, and an orientation pro
gram that runs for any less than two days does not give
people an opportunity to really see why those values work
in an organisation,” he says.
In Disney and Pixar, it is HR who spearheads the
process of creating an orientation program that deals with
the vision and values and how to instil those in employ
ees at all levels.
Proof of such an approach was found in Disney, when
one year they tried to change their tactics. Every summer
they hire tens of thousands of people for the peak season
in their parks, and they put everyone through a two-day
orientation program before they start their job. As it is an
expensive process, the finance department suggested cut
ting this orientation program down to one day to save
costs – which they did for one summer. However, that
summer the managers in the park starting complaining to
HR that the quality of hires was not as good as in the past
and they wanted to know what had changed.
“The only difference was they cut off the one day of ori
entation called ‘traditions’. When they put it back in the
complaints went away,” says Capodagli. “It takes more
than just a day for people to question and then embrace
a new set of values.”
Disney and Pixar’s orientation program covers the his
tory of the company, the history of storytelling, vision and
values and lots of exercises that demonstrate collaboration.
Bring in the Brad Birds
Another driver of Pixar’s and Disney’s success is hiring
interesting people. Very often companies tend to look at a
candidate’s pedigree and credentials, rather than the excit
ing and innovative thinking they might possess. Accord
ing to Capodagli, some of the wackiest ideas come from
people who may not have the conventional credentials.
“HR should be a leader at looking for people who are
not all the same in an organisation. I don’t mean gender
and race, but the thinking of people too,” he says. “We see
in all too many organisations the people are cut out of the
same mold as the CEO or the head of research and devel
Capodagli gives the great example of how employing
these “wacky types” can lead to huge success. “After Toy
Story, Bugs Life and Toy Story 2, which were such great
successes, Ed (Catmull, president of Pixar) and the man
agement were afraid that they would fall into this formulaic group of doing the same thing
over and over again. So they hired a guy from the outside, Brad Bird, to come in and do
Capodagli explains that Bird was known as a maverick in the industry and was even
let go from a couple of studios. When he came into Pixar with some radical ideas they
were shot down by some of the technical people, who said it would take 10 years to
make and it would be far too expensive. Bird went to management and said: “Give me
all your people who have different ways of doing things but haven’t had a chance to
show their creative side. Give me even the people who are about to walk out the door.”
The group was called “the black sheep”.
The result was The Incredibles, and the highest-selling DVD in the US, which also
cost less per minute of production than any of the previous films.
“Innovation really needs to begin in HR,” says Capodagli. “It’s even more important
in HR than new product marketing, or research and development.”
Training at Pixar is one of the other keys of making it a great place to work. They offer
more than 110 classes which vary from job-related classes, like screen writing and film
ing to drawing and sculpting and even self-defence classes. Every person in the organi
sation, from the receptionist to the president, is encouraged to take four hours of class
every single week on company time.
“Pixar feels that everybody has unlimited potential and the more you exercise your
brain the better receptionist, technician or executive you’ll be,” says Capodagli.
“When Randy Nelson, the Dean of Pixar University
was asked ‘Why would you teach accountants how to
draw?’ he said ‘We don’t just teach them how to draw, we
teach them to be more observant. And if you think about
it every company would be more productive if their employ
ees were more observant.”
While not all companies can have a special university
such as the Pixar University, one way in which smaller
companies could enhance this training is by funding classes
at local colleges and adult education classes.
“I do believe that if you give people four hours of train
ing on something of their choice, they will be more pro
ductive in the other 36 hours,” he says.
Dream like a child
Leadership within Pixar is also very important. It is through
the leadership of chief creative officer John Lasseter and
president Ed Catmull, that a playful environment and ulti
mately the company dream is created.
One of the things the company’s leadership advocates
is what Pixar calls “plussing”, a concept which originated
from Walk Disney himself – which was subsequently
adopted by the founders of Pixar. “Walt Disney continu
ally looked at things and how they could be done better.
Good was never good enough,” explains Capodagli.
This idea runs through the entire organisation. Each
individual must continue to assess what their individual
dream, their dream as a worker and also the values that
guide them as an individual. Employees also need to ask
themselves “what risk do I need to take to look at ways of
improving and put a plan together” – a question which
Walt Disney also encouraged employees to ask themselves.
Capodagli believes it’s important to celebrate failures
and for employees to ask themselves what they can learn
from them. “That’s the type of childlike attitude you need
to get back in to a company,” he says.
“When you are a child you think you can do anything,
you have all kinds of ideas and think you can do any of it.
It’s by encouraging this daring to dream like a child again,
that will reawaken the innovative spirit that is missing in
so many companies.”