Manage Innovation the Pixar Way

The real creativity leader during the late 1990s and early 2000s was Pixar.

August 18, 2010
KEYWORDS disney , leadership , pixar
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                     MagazineCU Mag: What’s Pixar’s approach to managing employees?

Capodagli: It’s based on a collaborative effort. Pixar goes to great lengths to make sure employees are a group of creative people who are, first and foremost, collaborative teammates.

That means they try to accomplish a common goal based on a lot of different skills. They’re constantly reviewing.

One thing many creative types there had to get used to was that Pixar has a daily review of all their work. It’s not about saying something is wrong or bad. It’s just an open area where everyone can comment and help each other.

To do that you need to have a safe haven where people feel safe to tell the truth and express their ideas.

CU Mag: How can CUs create a safe haven for innovation?

Capodagli: It starts with leadership. Leaders must realize they can’t be everywhere all the time and they don’t have all the answers.

One cofounder of Pixar said it’s about people functioning as a team and being enabled to make decisions. That’s more important than great ideas coming down from top management.

I did a keynote for a financial institution a few years ago, and I love what its president said: “We have to do what our customers ask of us unless it’s illegal, immoral, or unethical. They’re entrusting us with their money and their financial future. We need to solve their problems, not cause more problems.

CU Mag: How does Pixar motivate employees to be creative?

Capodagli: The whole premise of our book is that Pixar is this corporate playground. When you go there, you may see people playing foosball or swimming in an Olympic-sized pool.

It has created an atmosphere where work is fun—working hard and playing hard. That’s the greatest motivator.

CU Mag: How can employees embrace playfulness when their employer doesn’t?

Capodagli: That’s tough. If leadership doesn’t embrace or create an atmosphere that enables workers to have a good time, it’s hard for the worker to do that.

On the other hand, front-line employees can still embrace fun during their interactions with customers. You see a lot of examples of that in non-fun organizations, where there may be one employee who’s a little wackier than the rest of them. But the customers love that person and wonder why the whole organization can’t be that way.

Next: How to encourage risk-taking

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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