Inspired by Pixar: Empowering Your Creatives

In response to richrelevance receiving the “2009 Best Place to Work” in the SF Bay Area recognition, one of my advisors reached out to me and asked a pertinent question: what are you doing to preserve your culture?

He sent me a link to an article in the Harvard Business Review on how Pixar (another Bay Area company!) has maintained their culture of innovation for almost 15 incredibly successful years. I never pass up an opportunity to learn from those I admire—and this was definitely one of those. Even if you don’t like rats, you liked Ratatouille; even if you love sushi, you enjoyed Nemo; and everyone loves toys, so Toy Story was a slam dunk. Pixar may not be a model of a perfect company, but especially in a down economy, intelligently investing in people and culture multiplies ROI many times over.

Creativity is something we also value very highly @ richrelevance. We built a team of experts, and as such, it is vital to ensure that they have the motivation and leeway to make our platform and products the best-of-the-best. This goal is always top of mind for me and makes the Pixar case study even more pertinent.

Ed Catmull, one of the Pixar founders, tells how they built an open culture and leveraged it to maintain innovation, Pixar’s core asset of success, in a market where innovation is not typically rewarded—in fact, where repetition and consistency are the tricks of the trade (think Terminator 3 ) (or Terminator 2 for that matter).

Ed talks through some of the key elements of their culture which became increasingly valuable and increasingly core as they grew their company.

1. “Empower your creatives” (or creators as I’d call them): a successful production is not a top-down process. In line with Jim Collins’ Good to Great, excellence is not a top-down process—leadership’s job is the orchestration of many, many people who are all smarter than the leaders.

2. “Create a peer culture” and “Free up communication”: Walls of control exist within most companies—even the smallest ones. Empowering people to work together cross-organizationally creates clearer communication and many more opportunities for improvement and innovation. Further, seeing the work of peers can inspire folks to raise the bar or might spawn an epiphany!

3. “Craft a learning environment” and build an environment where it’s safe to learn from mistakes: pro-active learning like providing training (both work-related and fully independent) instills a culture of constant growth and embraces the employee as a whole. Unfortunately, post-mortems are usually seen as tedious, painful exercises only to be undertaken in the most dire of circumstances. Instead, post-mortems should be engaging and an opportunity for everyone to air the successes and the shortcomings of a project. At richrelevance, we have found that by having post-mortems frequently, the fear of speaking up goes down and the “caustic burn” of acknowledging a mistake is transformed into a learning experience.

At one point, Ed even mentions their physical building as being a supporting player in maintaining their culture—an intriguing hub-and-spoke design where the core services (restrooms, cafeteria, and mailboxes) are all centralized to encourage “chance encounters”. I noticed a similar focus on physical innovation at IDEO (another company I hold in pretty high regards when it comes to innovation) where they have an almost ridiculous conference-room/flying saucer in their front lobby!

I found the article so compelling, I had, had, had to write about it and share it. We’ll definitely be reading it/thinking it through here at richrelevance and I’d encourage you to take the time.

In fact, if you’d like, e-mail me [daveselinger (-@-)] and I’ll buy you a copy.

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This post was written by David Selinger

ABOUT David Selinger
David is CEO and founder of RichRelevance. He first garnered international recognition as an expert in the field of eCommerce data analytics and personalization with his groundbreaking work leading the research and development arm of Amazon’s Data Mining and Personalization team. In that role, David increased Amazon’s annual profit by over $50 million (25% of US profit, 2003) setting the industry standard for recommendation services. To view David's full profile, click here.
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