The Way They Do Things Around There: An Analysis of the ‘Pixar Culture’

Term Paper, 2010

20 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Culturalissue

3. Theoretical framework and limitations

4. Analysis

5. Conclusion



A: Schein's three levels of culture
B: Hofstede's five dimensions of culture
C: Hofstede's critics

1. Introduction

The history of Pixar (Pixar Animation Studios, 2009a) goes back to 1984 when John Lasseter, today's chief creative officer of both Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, started working for the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm which two years later was bought by Steve Jobs and renamed "Pixar". In 1991, after a number of short films and commercials with some of them winning various awards, Pixar and Disney pooled forces aiming to make the first full-length com­puter-animated movie. Released in 1995, Toy Story was a great success and marks the beginning of Pixar's unbroken triumph to date.

Having once prolonged their agreement to work together in 1997, and having released Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredi- bles, all major successes, Pixar eventually was acquired by Disney in 2006. How­ever, instead of absorbing Pixar, people in charge at Disney explicitly agreed to let Pixar continue as it did before and even secured the preservation of the 'Pixar Culture' in their contract (Telegraph Media Group Limited, 2009). In fact, Disney used the merger to revive its own spirits, for example by promoting John Lasse­ter to his above-mentioned position.

2. Cultural issue

The merger of Disney and Pixar is not the central issue for this assignment. It simply is a good example for the superiority of Pixar's culture and the myth that surrounds it.

What is it that makes Pixar's culture so outstanding, how do they do things around there to be so prosperous as to even outclass Disney? This assignment will take a closer look at the famous 'PixarCulture' by examining its human re­source management with the focus on how working at Pixar is managed in gen­eral as well as the role human resource development plays.

3. Theoretical framework and limitations

The analysis of Pixar's organisational culture will be based on Schein's three lev­els of organisational culture (Schein, 1984), namely artefacts, values and basic assumptions (Appendix A). The fact that it allows a structured analysis of the or­ganizational culture beginning at an observational level makes this model attrac­tive for this analysis. By referring to artefacts identified in literature about Pixar, such as newspaper articles and interviews, a first step towards understanding its culture is possible without the necessity of being more closely involved. These artefacts can then be interpreted to find underlying values. Unfortunately, as Schein himself stated (Schein, 1984, p. 3), artefacts, though easily found, are dif­ficult to interpret; however, interpretation can be supported by statements of members of Pixar found in the given literature that help to explain artefacts and point out values, thus countering that disadvantage.

As the available sources from which the conclusions will be drawn mainly reflect the thoughts and perspectives of Pixar's leaders and most famous members, a certain bias cannot be fully overcome. Therefore it may be suspected that not everything that could be found completely reflects how working at Pixar really is like. Additionally, interviews with employees of Pixar (Pixar Animation Studios. 2009b) give some confirmation of the findings, but they are mainly focused on people's individual work and not their overall working experience at Pixar.

Following Schein's understanding, organisational culture is largely based on the theories and assumptions a company's founders originally brought with them and is then shaped by its development in terms of its members' experiences (Schein, 1983, p. 14). Schein conceives this to be especially true for first­generation firms where the founders are still part of the organisation and no suc­cessors have had an impact on the culture (Schein, 1983, p. 24). This exactly ap­plies to Pixar as its co-founder Ed Catmull today holds the position of president and therefore still influences Pixar's culture significantly. Moreover, although he is not an official co-founder, John Lasseter was the one who laid the foundations for Pixar and still plays a major role in the company (Pixar Animation Studios, 2009c). Thus, by and large, it can be safely assumed that the available literature, mainly based on Catmull's and Lasseter's perspectives as well as on those of people very near to and influenced by them, such as Brad Bird, gives a fairly ac­curate impression of the 'Pixar Culture' and serves as a sufficient source of in­formation to work with Schein's theory as a framework.

Being aware of other possible frameworks, Schein's theory seems to be particu­larly favourable as it is intended to be especially used for analyses of organisa­tional culture (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2006, p. 185). Hofstede's framework of cul­tural dimensions (Appendix B) in contrast is based on national cultures and, though probably cited in every textbook about culture, criticised by various au­thors (Appendix C). For these reasons the author refrains from using Hofstede's theory for this analysis.

While techniques such as Geertz's thick description (Geertz, 1973) would be helpful for a better understanding of Pixar's culture, this would require much more information and optimally personal involvement over a longer period of time which are not given here. Concluding, Schein's three levels of organisational culture seem to be both fit and appropriate for this assignment.

4. Analysis

For the sake of brevity, the following analysis of Pixar's culture will present the discovered values one after another, each of them underpinned by the associ­ated artefacts identified. Not starting separately with artefacts and then drawing conclusions about correlating values, in turn entailing the necessity to establish a connection to the already mentioned artefacts, contributes to a compact struc­ture of the analysis. Thus, several smaller parts will be combined to form a greater picture of Pixar, giving an impression of the organisational culture and allowing a concluding interpretation of the basic assumptions that underlie and constitute it.

First of all, one of Pixar's most evident values is their belief in constant learning. As Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles put it, the only thing people at Pixar (re­ferring especially to Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and Steve Jobs) dread is becoming complacent (Rao, Sutton and Webb, 2008). After all their success, resting on their laurels is not and must never become an option. The way Pixar wants people to see it is that there is always something you do not know yet but you can learn. The central outstanding artefact reflecting this confidence in constant personal development is the Pixar University (PU). An institution within Pixar Animation Studios, here people receive training required for their individual work (Catmull, 2008, p. 71) but they are also given the opportunity to voluntarily choose from more than 110 courses which are not necessarily connected to their everyday work, such as painting or creative writing, on which they are encouraged to spend up to 4 hours a week. These classes are explicitly regarded as part of eve­ryone's work and people at Pixar seem to like it (Pixar Animation Studios, 2009d). According to Randy S. Nelson, dean of PU, Pixar seeks to establish a learning cul­ture and is looking for people who are interested, not interesting (Taylor and LaBarre, 2006, p. 1). The fact that Pixar allows development for a movie to take several years with repeated revision and refining (Adams, 2009) also shows the commitment to constant improvement and learning.

The will to learn is also reflected in the way new employees are chosen and inte­grated. From the beginning, Lasseter and Catmull agreed to hire only people who they considered to be better than themselves (Lasswell, 2004), i.e. people they hope to learn from. Therefore, instead of being expected to simply become part of Pixar and adjust to the rules, they are asked to bring change with them and come up with ideas to improve work at Pixar. To encourage this, Ed Catmull even talks about mistakes Pixar has made in the past when giving orientation sessions for new employees (Catmull, 2008, p. 72). This ultimately shows how an ongoing search for improvement is deeply ingrained into the Pixar culture. Being open for and appreciating new experiences and thereby enhancing one's own capacities both in one's own field of expertise and beyond obviously reflect one of the core values at Pixar.

However, other values become evident when looking at PU: egalitarianism and harmony. Learning is one thing, but at PU you are not expected to do that on your own but with other members of Pixar, including people from all depart­ments and hierarchy levels (Taylor and LaBarre, 2006, p. 2). Thus, not only can employees develop their primary skills but at the same time get an insight into other people's work and learn to appreciate what they contribute to Pixar (Morse, 2002). Ed Catmull, who is especially proud ofthe PU, sets a good exam­ple by taking classes himself (Schlender, 2004). This not only adds value to the learning process, but also puts all members on an equal level and even allows employees to be the ones telling their boss how something is done.

Furthermore, the leaders at Pixar continuously work on what might seem impos­sible to some: a harmonious, complementing relationship between art and tech­nology, the two pillars Pixar is built on. As Lasseter stated, at Pixar art challenges technology by forcing it to constantly improve its capacities and in turn technol­ogy inspires art through its ongoing development (Catmull, 2008, p. 9). This "yin- yang relationship" (Schlender, 2004) seems to be one of the main forces driving people at Pixar, which is only possible by the mutual appreciation of the respec­tive counterpart and its efforts that bridges the "great divide in our world be­tween the artistically creative and the technically creative" (Lee, 2006). PU, of course, also plays a significant role in bringing the two worlds together, for ex­ample when programmers learn how to sculpture. To underline equalisation be­tween technical people and artists, Pixar makes sure that remuneration for em­ployees is the same for everyone (Morse, 2002, p. 19).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Way They Do Things Around There: An Analysis of the ‘Pixar Culture’
Northumbria University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
477 KB
Analysis, Pixar, Culture, Unternehmenskultur, Hofstede, Schein, Organisational Culture
Quote paper
BA (Hons) in International Business Management Matthias Nuoffer (Author), 2010, The Way They Do Things Around There: An Analysis of the ‘Pixar Culture’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Way They Do Things Around There: An Analysis of the ‘Pixar Culture’

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free