It’s long been known that innovation tends to work better in flatter structures, where permission to break the rules comes from above, and without it, people struggle to go beyond the everyday. But let’s be clear: is there a kind of innovation that can benefit from hierarchy? Where the innovative activity is aligned with what the business does day to day, what Clay Christiensen refers to as incremental, then certainly hierarchies can help manage vertical structures which aim to improve existing product or service lines. But when innovating beyond business-as-usual, there are many reasons why people struggle to sustain innovations that go beyond existing offers. One of the reasons is that the new ideas require someone to ‘own’ them, nurture them and help ensure they get to market. Another reason is staff’s annual targets mean that their new idea will not be seen as contributing towards their annual review, especially when that new initiative may take a year or two to prove worthwhile.

Let’s have a look at a company that excels at what it does with a much flatter setup: Pixar, and at some of the ways it enables its staff.

  • Pixar Animation Studios make Academy Award winning computer animated films. They strongly believe the primacy of people over ideas, however they know that talented people are hard to find.
  • They are culturally committed to fostering a sustainable creative organisation with an environment that promotes trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity. In turn, this generates a vibrant and passionate culture that attracts even greater talent from schools or other companies.
  • Pixar sustains a culture in which no one is afraid to speak up and come up with ideas openly. Their key core philosophy is to work together as peers, there’s no ego and employees at all levels support one another. They keep their communication channels opened with their “dailies”, a daily review process of giving and taking constructive feedback.To inspire employees, Pixar University was founded, using in-house courses to develop careers and provide optional classes such as screenplay writing, drawing, sculpting, pilates and yoga.

Pixar’s operating principles:

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone
  2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas
  3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community