Remember the Magic of Childhood
When we were children the truth lived in our imaaginations—where we were the princesses in the castle or the knights in shining armor slaying the dragon. In our minds, we could do anything! But then parents, teachers, and bosses chased the little kid right out of us. Dreaming, making believe, acting impulsively, and taking risks were not rewarded in the “real world”—the adult world. We must follow the rules. The small child became silent, but childhood dreams are resilient and remain hidden away in the deepest caverns of our minds. In the Pixar “playground,” employees are free to let loose their childlike “magic” and energy.
Pixar is a unique blend of both technically and artistically creative people who are continually engaged in their passions for making movies. And certainly, the childlike atmosphere in Pixar’s Emeryville, California, “playground” sparks its employees’ collective creativity on a level that has become the envy of employees in countless other organizations. In the words of Alvy Ray Smith, “When I sit around and watch the animators, it seems that they have managed to hold onto childhood. They surround themselves with toys, and they just have a lot of fun like kids. That’s one of the reasons they are so damn much fun to be around—they’re sort of constantly fun, playful, setting up little secret rooms—you just don’t know what they are going to do next.”
A New Way to Play “Follow the Leader”
REMEMBER PLAYING “FOLLOW the leader” as a child? The leader starts doing something—walk, run, dance, sing, or any activity the leader wants to do, in any order the leader chooses—and the rest of the players follow, doing exactly what the leader does. Anyone who doesn’t exactly follow the leader is out of the game. The end of the game occurs when only one person remains following the leader. Of course, the leader’s goal is to trick team members so they will be eliminated. Unfortunately, too many corporate managers play this game all too well. Rather than fostering an environment of self-motivated creative thinkers, they assume the role of pied piper, leading followers to drown in a river of corporate rules, regulations, and processes.
Walt Disney didn’t ascribe to the childhood playbook for “follow the leader.” We believe that some historians have misconstrued Walt’s passion for requiring his animators to execute his bold ideas as micromanagement. In fact, he once said, “I am in no sense of the word a great artist, not even a great animator. I have always had men working for me whose skills were greater than my own. I am an idea man.” It’s true that Walt’s dreams were aggressive—some even thought impossible—and his standards of excellence demanding.
Walt’s unique leadership definition made it possible to harness creative energies within his organization: “The ability to establish and manage a creative climate in which individuals and teams are self-motivated to the successful achievement of long-term goals in an environment of mutual respect and trust.” In all our years of consulting, we have yet to discover a clearer and more enduring definition of exemplary leadership. Pixar is today’s embodiment of Walt Disney’s new “follow the leader” sentiment.
Collaboration in the Sandbox
HAVE YOU EVER watched the interplay of children in a sandbox? The younger ones watch with curiosity how the older children build their sandcastles. From time to time, the older children will mentor the younger ones, suggesting ideas and providing instruction for using the essential construction tools—shovels and buckets. Kids don’t need to take “Sandcastle Building 101” to learn how to build a sand-castle. They learn from intense observation and by trial and error in a collaborative environment.
Walt Disney once said, “Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” Truly creative people exhibit a level of enthusiasm for imagination and discovery that harkens back to the days of childhood. Indeed, innovation begins with a beginner’s mind and is oft en stimulated by a catalyst.
At the completion of Toy Story, Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter began discussions on the importance of continuing education in building a top-notch studio—one in which not only new employees could learn the skills they need, but also veteran staff could expand their learning horizons beyond their fields of expertise, and a place where everyone would learn collaboratively. Like Walt Disney before them, Ed and John planned a studio-based school, and they sought out a leader who was not an artist in the traditional sense of the word. Pixar University
was soon to be under the direction of Randy Nelson, a former technical trainer at NeXT (founded in 1985 by Steve Jobs) and one of the founding members of the world-famous juggling troupe the Flying Karamazov Brothers. It stands to reason, if you are going to offer a highly diverse array of courses, why not hire a guy with a highly diverse background as the leader? As Ed said, “He had an unusual combination of skills, which I felt was an asset. I figured I’d rather have a world-class juggler running the program than a mediocre artist. People who have experience doing great work understand something that can be applied to other things.”
Stand Together Against the Bullies
ASK ANY GROUP of children to name the bullies at their school, and they won’t need to guess. Most can point out the bad guys without hesitation. There’s always someone bigger and stronger, tougher and meaner, who relishes being the proverbial leader of the pack. Bullies are particularly adept at calculating how to best exercise their power and inflict pain on others. Any child on the receiving end of such abuse runs the risk of developing low self-esteem, getting poor grades, and perhaps even living an unfulfilled life.
Remember the old adage “there’s safety in numbers”? Bullies know very well that it’s a lot harder to fight the whole pack than a single straggler. The savvy kids are quick to figure out that it’s best to form a coalition and stand strong.
Creative people flourish when they unite to forge new frontiers and when they refuse to compromise their values—even if it means pushing back on unyielding, high-ranking corporate bullies. To avoid constant interference from bullies in suits, it’s important to establish specific milestones within your projects and invite the “suits” to a briefing or two. These milestones have three purposes: first, to present the current status and results achieved thus far; second, to continue selling the “dream”; and third, to gain management input. Remember to treat management as you would treat a customer—focus on getting them to embrace your dreams.
Now, you may be thinking, “But we could lose our jobs!” And, maybe for some, the potential reward is just not worth the risk. But the downside risk might be even greater—the dream of a lifetime could slip away.
Recess: Go Out and Play!
When we deprive our children of the opportunity to soar through the sky on a swing and feel as though they were flying, or to hang from their legs on the trapeze as though they were above the crowd in a circus tent, we are actually robbing them of their ability to dream! Stopping them from forming a baseball, basketball, or tag game without “appropriate” adult intervention denies them an experience of spontaneously teaming with and believing in their playmates.
If we prohibit our children from engaging in “risky” activities—from conquering a jungle gym to maneuvering an overhead ladder—how will they ever develop their ability to “dare”? And if we fail to encourage them to experience the joy of accomplishment from building a castle or village in the sandbox, how will they learn solid planning and “doing” skills? Fun and play are imperative to strengthening one’s imagination, creative abilities, and most of all, innovative thinking.
Pixar director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) has said, “The most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never in the budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every one dollar you spend, you get about twenty-five cents of value. If you have high morale, for every dollar you spend you get about three dollars of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.” George Zimmer, CEO and founder of Men’s Wearhouse, told us, “Most businesses repress our natural tendency to have fun and to socialize. The idea seems that in order to succeed, you have to suffer. But I believe you do your best work when you are feeling enthusiastic about things.”
Just remember this: one of the best side effects of encouraging fun at work is that it inspires employees to think outside the box and be more innovative—and that’s certainly not a waste of time or energy! Most important, can we afford to let our most cherished resource—our employees—feel stifled, unappreciated, and burned out?