In-Depth Insights

1. Make Sure Everyone Is Heard

Have you ever been too scared or intimidated to tell your ‘big boss’ your fantastic idea to improve the company, save money, and keep the staff happy? It’s a common problem when there’s a hierarchy in the workplace with the low yet vital staff feeling unheard and that they have no right to interfere with the day-to-day running of the company. Herein lies the problem - Workers need to feel valued and know that their opinions will be heard, acted upon, and applauded. In order to get honest feedback from employees, you have to allow information, ideas, and problems to be shared freely by removing the hierarchies.

In 2013, Pixar did this by introducing ‘Notes Day’. Regular work was paused for the day whilst the staff worked in teams to provide the company with their feedback. In order to get employees sharing their best feedback and taking accountability for their work, Ed Catmull makes sure to talk to all of his employees individually, listening to their thoughts and concerns and making them feel heard and confident in sharing their thoughts with him.

In a similar way, Japanese factories improved productivity in the 1940’s by giving all workers the ability to stop the production line if they saw a problem rather than only the senior managers having that power. Because every worker felt proud of fixing the problems they saw, and being able to act on them quickly, their efficiency shot up resulting in a win-win for everyone.

2. Fear of Failure Stops People Taking Risks

Why try something new when the old way still works fine and there’s a chance the new way won’t? Management see this way of thinking all the time when new systems are introduced in the workplace - people drag their feet and complain about having to change, saying that the old system worked much better all because they’re scared that this unfamiliar new system will cause them to make mistakes that they wouldn’t have done on the old system. As humans we fear failure so much thinking that making mistakes makes us look stupid or inadequate when really it’s perfectly natural to make mistakes when trying something new - just think about when you were learning to drive or learning to play the guitar, mistakes were common and all part of the learning process.

Employees need to know that it’s ok to make mistakes when they’re trying something new and that you don’t expect them to perform perfectly or have the system perform perfectly the first time. If you make sure that staff don’t feel burdened by the potential fear of failure you’ll give them the confidence to try new things. 

Fear of failure also shows up when we try to keep a tight grip on the future, unwilling or unable to bend and adapt for whatever the future holds. Businesses want to follow the ‘safe’ path and eliminate uncertainty yet this can lead to missed opportunities and in some cases, cause the business to go bust when it can’t bend with the times so snaps in half instead.

3. Managers Don’t Always Know Best

Peter Wason, a British psychologist, proved in the 1960’s that people give preference to information that supports their opinions over information that undermines it, regardless of how accurate it is. This behavior (otherwise known as confirmation bias) makes us blind to alternative opinions and causes us to make mistakes.

In the workplace, confirmation bias can make us lean more towards the opinion of 1 person who agrees with our brilliant new idea than 10 people who don’t and who raise valid concerns as to why it won’t work. 

Avoid the confirmation bias trap by acknowledging that your employees or team members might have better ideas than you and by acknowledging your own shortcomings as no one knows everything.

At Pixar, managers learned this valuable lesson when during a meeting, an employee made a radical suggestion that had never been considered before - to move the animation work towards the end of production rather than have it at the beginning. This would mean that animators would have all the information they needed upfront without the need for constant revisions and wasted time. The Pixar managers saw the potential in the idea and implemented it to great success.

4. Employees Should Feel That They’re Contributing to the Company’s Success

When you’re not sure why you’re doing something, you don’t make a commitment and give it your all. That’s why every employee needs to know that the work they do is a vital part of the process and that the cogs couldn’t turn without their input. When employees feel that they’re contributing to the company’s success they are more willing to give their all and pull together to overcome any obstacle that arises. 

Every company needs to work towards a goal in order to operate at its best but the goal doesn’t need to be specific in terms of number of sales, it can be an abstract goal such as “pursue excellence” in which each member of staff strives to give the best possible customer service.

At Pixar the term “passion for excellence” had a positive impact on employees, helping to push them that extra mile to achieve excellence in all aspects of their work. This could be seen during the production of Toy Story 2 when several issues arose that threatened to derail any chance of success but because “passion for success” was imprinted into each member of the team, they managed to work 24/7 to fix the problems and ended up with film that made more than $500 million at the box office.

5. Your Team Trumps All

A company doesn’t succeed based on its ideas or goals, but on the people that make those ideas and goals happen. Always remember that your employees are more important than the ideas and processes so hiring the right people, your all-star team, is essential.

It’s not just about hiring the most talented people, you have to make sure those individuals will come together and work well as a team, sharing their insights and knowledge with the group to create a successful product. More so, the team needs to be made up of diverse individuals rather than similarly minded people so that their differences compliment and inspire each other.

6. Trust and Empower Your Employees

As a manager, you have to trust your employees to make some decisions, it’s no good trying to micromanage everything as this stifles your employees creativity as well as their morale.

You hired your team so presumably they are smart and an expert at what they do, more apt to solve certain problems than their manager since managers have different skills that say, a technician, does. So give employee’s the ability to act independently and trust them to do their very best for you and fix any problems that come up.

Ed Catmull goes to the extreme of only employing people who he feels are more intelligent than him, believing that these people will have the confidence to use their initiative creatively without him needing to supervise them every step of the way.

7. Don’t Plan To Avoid Failure, Plan to Recover

You can’t avoid misfortune in business but you can make sure that misfortune doesn’t damage the company in the long run - This is the job of the manager, not to avoid risk and failure but to get the ship back afloat after things do go wrong.

This can be done by incorporating recovery techniques into a business plan. Pixar accepts that mistakes are all part of the process and places a value on iterative processes, attempting to remove the mistakes in the next project. They also have the philosophy that every member of the team is responsible for a failure rather than heaping the blame on one individual, in this way everyone is responsible for fixing the problem too rather than brushing it off saying ‘it wasn’t my fault’. 

Furthermore, if you have the option of letting your employees fail early on, it gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and really pull it out of the bag later on when it counts.

8. The Work Environment Needs To Be Inspiring

Are you inspired when you walk into a gray office block and see cubicles that all look exactly the same and the only place to talk with colleagues is at the water cooler? Offices like this are commonplace (unless you work in Silicon Valley!) with management seemingly oblivious that the workplace environment should be designed to inspire creativity not mind numbing boredom.

Pixar discovered that changing the atmosphere in the office space could be done quickly and easily simply by changing a table. Initially, meetings at Pixar took place at a long rectangular table with name cards at each seat making it a very formal environment with those seated in the middle more able to converse with each other than those seated towards the end. When a square table was introduced and the name cards ditched, employees felt more free to voice their ideas and were able to communicate with each other more easily.

Ed Catmull also allows employees to decorate their workspace any way they want to show off their personality and creativity and allows for personal project days - Two days a month Pixar’s tech developers and engineers are able to use all the tools and technology they have at their disposal to work on any personal project they wish. Instead of worrying about lost money on those days, the managers often find that employees come up with ideas that can benefit Pixar.