Magic in the workplace – how Pixar and Disney unleash the creative talent of their workforce

by 18 Mar 2010

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 meeting monotony.

“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 experience.”

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 opment.”

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 The Incredibles.”

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.”

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