A Natural Learning Organization

I just finished reading Creativity, Inc., The story of Pixar Animation Studios written by one of its founders and current President Ed Catmull, along with Amy Wallace. Pixar, as a business organization, is a runaway success with top grossing movies beginning with Toy Story and forward with every movie released as a #1 hit.

We know Pixar as a leader in cutting edge computer animation and as dedicated storytellers; high-tech and ancient tech interwoven.  This success though does not just happen and this book provides great insight from one of the founders and ongoing leaders of the enterprise.

Creativity-IncEd Catmull, while an expert in the technology, is primarily focused on creating an environment that allows the people of Pixar to thrive. This shows through his focus, observations, and decision-making.

I recommend you add the book to your reading queue (you do have a reading queue, right). As with any great story there is conflict, key decisions, and seemingly unrelated occurrences making huge impact.  The story of Pixar is a great story of itself and that story continues.

I perked up when Ed talked extensively on “Mental Models”, our internal pictures of the world and how they shape our actions and decisions.  I did not see a direct reference to a Learning Organization, but that is how Ed is using the concept of Mental Models.

A learning organization exists when “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

From The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

The Fifth Discipline was an early influence for me and over the past 20 plus years it has staying power. It was great to see Ed focus on mental models in line with the work of Peter Senge. As I think about the story within Pixar I see several other links to the five disciplines of a Learning Organization detailed in the Fifth Discipline. Ed and his team at Pixar are naturally operating as a learning organization to great effect.

Personal Mastery: “Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea” … open classes for all employees – security learning to draw and animators learning to cook.

Mental Models: “The goal then, is to un-couple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts … Only 40 percent of what we think we “see” comes in through our eyes. The rest is made up from memory or patterns that we recognize from experience.”

Shared Vision: “We have to remain loyal to each other … Story is King … Driving the train doesn’t set its course, the real job is laying the track … Protect the future, not the past.”

Team Learning: To describe their famed Braintrust meetings, “Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love.” … Notes Day, where they shut down production for a day to hear from every person in the organization, generating ideas and “shrinking the organization” as people worked together for a common goal.

Systems Thinking: “The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff … Being on the lookout for problems was not the same as seeing problems … The things that happened have an unfair advantage over the things that didn’t … An organization is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it.”

A thought-provoking book and a view into a favorite company. Pixar is proving that organizations thrive when they focus on continually building their capacity to learn and create. To infinity and beyond indeed.

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