Have you ever noticed that governments, schools, and corporations tend to be creative voids? That’s because creativity doesn’t follow a structured plan, wear a uniform, or adhere to a rigid hierarchy. Creativity is the opposite of planned, reliable, and expected. Yet, creativity is one of the key ingredients to building a better business.
So how did Pixar take such an elusive and unpredictable force and make it function in a business environment? Simple. They designed Pixar’s workspace, policies, and culture to encourage and inspire creativity—by providing opportunities for the unplanned, the unreliable, and the unexpected.
To find out more about how Pixar inspired the creative process, I talked with Matthew Luhn, who worked as a story artist and animator for over twenty years. From growing up in a family toy store, Luhn ended up animating Toy Story 1, 2, 3, as well as Cars, Monsters University, The Incredibles, and Up, before he left to become a storytelling consultant.
In our interview, Luhn explained Pixar inspired creativity in three ways: increased serendipity, decreased hierarchy, and encouraged individualization.
Creativity isn’t always planned. It often happens by accident. Like coming up with a great idea for a product while working out at the gym, or taking a shower, or talking to a new person who shares a different point of view. Creativity is spontaneous.
In order to build this type of creative spontaneity in the DNA of Pixar, Luhn explained a work environment was designed that encouraged these chance collisions where people could bump into each other and exchange different ideas.
Luhn: When Steve Jobs designed the Pixar building, he purposely wanted to create a space that encouraged creativity. How do you create a space that encourages creativity? For Steve, it was by placing all the restrooms and cafes in the center of the building. Because when he was at Apple, he experienced that people would just go into their offices, work all day, not talk to anybody, and then go home. And nobody knew each other.
By placing the restrooms and cafes in the center of the Pixar building it created a way for cross-pollination of ideas to occur. When people left their offices in the course of the working day for a snack, lunch, or a restroom break, they would have to bump into one another. They would smile, say hello, and be inclined to talk about what they were working on. They might even find a sympathetic ear or get help solving a problem.
By inspiring people to engage with one another, our floor plan encouraged spontaneous creative moments. Sometimes when you give people too much space and comfort, in spite of their best intentions, they choose to withdraw.
Takeaway: Design your physical work environment so people from different departments have to interact with one other.
Businesses love their chains of command, but hierarchy is the death of creativity. Creative ideas do not follow an organization chart. Good ideas come from a multiplicity of voices and the freedom for them to be heard. But you won’t hear those voices in the back if you design your work environment like a monarchy.
Luhn explained how Pixar reduced their hierarchy through their furniture choices.
Luhn: When Pixar designed their meeting rooms…they purposely avoided using tables that were rectangular…because they wanted to encourage everyone to speak up. How does a rectangle table stifle creativity?
Well, when meetings happen at rectangular tables, either the person with the elevated status chooses the end position, or the person who sits at the end is given instant status above the others at the meeting. A pecking order is established, even if only subliminally, and the people at the meeting play into that hierarchy. In trial juries, they have found that whoever sits at the end of the table is more often than not voted jury foreman.
Any environment where people are not focused on best idea or solution, but on how to please the king or queen, or be the king or queen undermines teamwork. In an environment of true teamwork, people have equal say. Instead of a rectangular table, teams should use round tables that eliminate hierarchy. The status of different employees shouldn’t make a difference when it comes to creative input.”
Takeaway: Increase the number of people sharing ideas by changing the furniture, the seating arrangements, or the order in which people participate.
Creativity is nothing if not individual. It has its own voice, and doesn’t conform to society’s expectations. While most companies discourage individuality in the spirit of treating everyone the same, Pixar does the opposite, Luhn explained, encouraging individuality in their employees by allowing them to pursue personal interests.
Luhn: It’s worth mentioning that many companies struggle to find and retain talent. How do companies like Pixar keep good creatives for a long time? Above and beyond bonuses, or more money, it’s by allowing for individuality. People actually want to feel like they are learning and growing. Money might keep them close to home and stagnant, but challenges and new opportunities keep them fresh and growing.
Make a point to offer classes at work that are available to all employees, in an effort to keep minds challenged and growing. Sculpture classes, life drawing, culinary classes, improvisational acting, the list goes on. New learning experiences keep the brain fresh and excited. Along with offering classes at work, also empower your employees to start their own classes or events, like a photography class, yoga class, or annual car show.
Add to that the chance to have original experiences outside of work. Offer education stipends to your employees to take classes that will inspire them to think outside the box, like writing classes or attending an event like Comic-Con or Burning Man. These types of adventures can even be wrapped into research and work trips, like when a bunch of us from Pixar spent a couple weeks on Route 66 in 2002 in preparation for making Cars.
When you work for a company for a long time, you can develop an identity crisis. After ten to thirty years, you can’t separate who you are outside of the company. This loss of identity can lead to a sense of despair. To battle this, find ways for yourself and others to continue having a life outside of work by continuing to create things that you can call your own.
By allowing your employees to use their creative talents outside the company you will be keeping them happy and in return, they will bring that positive experience back to work.
Takeaway: Encourage the individual voices in your company by allowing employees to learn and grow.