Book Review: Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground

Book Review – Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground

Over the past year, Jamestown Community College has been tightening their belt as they adjust to a declining enrollment. Smartly, they have also been pursuing a culture of innovation in an effort to more efficiently use the dollars they have as well as create an environment that is attractive to students and businesses alike. I am a fan of continual process improvement, which I blame on my career in the Air Force. Oh, by the way, Happy 69th birthday, United State Air Force.

When I look for books to read, I look for companies to benchmark in terms of processes and culture. I am a huge fan of Google and how they operate but I am also a fan of Pixar based on what and how they do things. When I saw Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground* in a used bookstore, I knew I wanted to learn from them. I was not disappointed. As a bonus, I have a signed copy; a benefit of shopping at a used bookstore.

Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson wrote Innovate the Pixar WayInnovate the Pixar Way is 208 pages long separated into five sections, 13 chapters, and three appendices. The major sections include:

  • An unnamed introduction
  • Dream like a child
  • Believe in your playmates
  • Dare to jump in the water and make waves
  • Do unleash your childlike potential

Pixar’s superpower is their creativity. This often flies in the face of how we are expected to act.

“When we were children the truth lived in our imaginations—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.” (Capodagli & Jackson, 2010, p. 2)

Throughout the book, the authors point out that it is difficult to balance a disciplined approach against creativity and innovation. I see this especially true in higher education. The culture I have experienced at three different institutions are risk adverse. To become innovative will require a significant change in culture. We can’t do it the way it has always been done.

The most successful companies do not simply improve upon what has always been done, they create in a new direction. One example the authors used is during the days of the Walkman, Apple did not create a better Walkman; instead, Apple pivoted and created the iPod. As a result, the Walkman no longer exists.

The authors highlighted what they believe to be key elements of a creative or innovative company:

  • Have a clear vision of what you want to do
  • Create a creative climate, be willing to make mistakes
  • Individuals must be given autonomy to be creative yet work as a team
  • Focus on the long game rather than play the short game for quick wins
  • Trust your employees and give them the tools to work

Perhaps on of the best chapters in the book was titled, “The skater who never falls will never win the gold!” As I noted earlier, higher education is risk adverse. Faculty are reluctant to try new things because there is a culture of criticism rather than support. The education system perpetuates the idea of risk aversion. This begins with grading. Grades are typically final; there are very few chances to get things wrong, learn from the mistakes, and try again. As the authors repeatedly encouraged, organizations should celebrate mistakes they make. Create an atmosphere where everyone in the organization can learn from what happened. In most cases, mistakes are handled behind closed doors and participants are made to feel as disappointments.

“Celebrate failure with the same intensity that you celebrate success” (Capodagli & Jackson, 2010, p. 78)

One of the other notable points made by the authors is that Pixar has their own university, where all employees are expected to spend at least 4 hours a week learning. Walt Disney also had the same practice. Continuous learning is not only allotted for but also expected. In the Air Force, there was continuous training and learning. However, for a place dedicated to teaching and learning, I have not yet seen the same level of dedication to self-development. At Jamestown Community College, I would like to see more participation in our weekly quests, workshops, faculty idea exchanges, and courses. Exposure to new ideas is a first step to innovation.

I think that Capodagli and Jackson did a great job explaining the Pixar culture. They included a lot of great insight about how to operate as a creative culture; however, I did not walk away with specific steps on how to make this happen. Nonetheless, the book was inspirational. It is nice to see how successful organizations operate. I believe there is a lot we can learn from their success. I would definitely recommend Innovate the Pixar Wayif for no other reason to get a glimpse of how a successful company operates.

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