Communication Isn’t Frozen

By: Sabrina Mills


The purpose of this case study is to look at Disney Pixar Animation Studios and look at their organizational culture. More specifically applying their culture to the General Systems Theory. The general systems theory is applying properties of living systems to different things, including organizations. Disney Pixar Animation Studios has a unique organizational culture that tries to center around bringing everyone together, and also making sure that everyone is a part of the process. In this case study, we will take a look at how Pixar incorporates all of these aspects, keeping the general systems theory in mind, and the secrets and insides to their organizational culture.

General Systems Theory, developed by Von Bertalanffy, applies the properties of living systems to many things, including organizations. General Systems Theory applies many concepts to an organizational environment. Organizations have a set of concepts that are universal to all of them. Concepts like Output. Output is when many elements are flowing out of the system. Like when a department is working together to better the entire organization. If the idea gets put out of test or discussion, that’s output. Input is another on are the opposite of Output. Input is many ideas and elements flowing into the system (Avtgis, 2012). For example, a comment and suggestions box. If the input is being brought into the organization, then its input General Systems Theory also deals with permeable boundaries, which are the limits where elements are exchanged within the system and the larger environment. This involves exchanging information within the system and the immediate environment (Avtgis, 2012). With this, there is a clear idea of whether the organization has an open system or closed system. An open system is when the info and elements are constantly exchanged within the organization, and in between all levels. A closed system is when the info is not shared with the immediate environment. With a closed system, an organization runs the risk of entropy. Entropy is when a system is moving toward death (Avtgis, 2012). An example of entropy is Blockbuster Video. They couldn’t keep up with competition and the changing world of technology, so eventually they were pushed out by more popular competition. Another concept is Homeostasis, which the balance of the system, or keeping the system in balance. This is different departments or sections working together to maintain a steady balance or flow within the organization. General Systems Theory also deals with subsystems and suprasystems. Subsystems are the smaller system that operate in a larger system. The suprasystem is that larger system in which the subsystem operates (Avtgis, 2012).  For example, a Home Depot is a subsystem of Home Depot Corporation, which would be the suprasystem. But the lumber department of that Home Depot store is the subsystem of the store itself, which would then become the suprasystem. Each department in an organization depends on each other to be able to sustain and survive (Avtgis, 2012). Another way for an organization to survive and thrive is through feedback. Feedback is info obtained through the system that comes from the environment (Avtgis, 2012). This is just like customer feedback. Its comments, suggestions, and feedback from the public or from outside the system. The feedback could benefit the organization, so it is important to take it into consideration, because it could help further the organization. A cybernetic System takes the feedback and self-regulates the feedback to maintain the system. System maintenance is when they system maintains its current practices. System adaption is when the system changes or adapts to the feedback based on the environmental changes around it (Avtgis, 2012). An example of this is Netflix. At one point, Netflix was just a mail order DVD company. Netflix is now one of the biggest movie streaming websites in the world. Organizations are all diverse and complex just like real life organisms. There are many aspects that go into making up the organizations. The general systems theory takes an overall look at what goes into making all organization run smoothly. Organizations are complex within themselves, but in general they all take the same kind of things to make them run efficiently.

Disney Pixar Animation Studios had an organizational culture that is unique. Like every other organization, it forms around a set of elements that helps it run smoothly. General Systems Theory can be applied to all organizations to explain many elements that go towards making it efficient. Disney Pixar is the studio that has come out with some of the most iconic animated films of our time. Many examples are the Toy Story franchise, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Frozen, and many others. As a company that puts in countless hours, efforts, and brain cells into one movie, there is a system to help it run. To hold it together and make it efficient enough not to fall apart. One part of the organization that is an essential key is caring about people (Fox, 2016). Ed Catmull, who is the President of Disney Pixar Animation Studios, says that this came about while working on Toy Story 2 (Catmull, 2014).  There are countless hours put into every movie. And a lot of effort by a lot of people. The animators at Pixar worked long hours, seven days a week over a grueling nine-month period to complete the movie.  By the end of the nine months, one-third of the staff had repetitive stress injuries (Fox, 2016). This is when Pixar decided that they needed to take a step back and look at how they were doing things, and focus on their people, rather than how fast they were doing them. A principle that they now have to make sure that their people are their number on priority is ideas come from people so people need to be the priority. A vital part of any organization is the people. The people are the backbone and where all of the ideas and creativity come from, so they should be number one priority. Along with making sure the people are happy in their environment, also comes the people they work with. Sometimes people clash heads. What’s equally tough, of course, is getting talented people to work effectively with one another. That takes trust and respect (Harvard, 2016). If you don’t trust or respect someone, how do you know that the work will get done well? So Disney Pixar Animation Studios decided it needed a change. One change it made was in communication between crew and production managers. During Toy Story, they said working had been a nightmare. No one was communication well. The crew said it was hard to get work done, because they felt like they were being micromanaged (Catmull, 2014). The production managers felt that the crew didn’t listen to their advice and that they weren’t being respected. Changing this was relatively easy. The solution was to let the crew work. Let them have their creativity and be able to make decisions and changes as they saw fit. Then they had to make sure to tell their managers after they had made the change so that there were no surprises (Catmull, 2014). With trust, come trust even in failure. Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them even when they do screw up (blogs, 2016). Another change that Pixar made was in getting people to communicate and have a life. Pixar decided that its people were working well, but it seemed to be all they were doing. So they fixed that. The remodeled their studios to be more of a central place. The cafeteria, the mail room, meeting rooms, and restrooms are all in the major center of everything This is supposed to foster communication with everyone. To help people to talk to each other instead of staring at computer screens all day (Reingold, 2016). There are many things that organizations could learn from Disney Pixar. One idea that Pixar fosters is Don’t be afraid of failure (Ziv). Failure is what tests out what works and what doesn’t. Failure lets you know that one thing didn’t work, but then you can change what you’re doing to help the process. With this Pixar believes that you should not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them (blogs, 2016). So, by failing, you’re discovering your errors and doing something to fix them. Another idea that Pixar tries to abide by is that a company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody. This is definitely helped with everyone being in a centralized area within the main part of the campus. This means that creators shouldn’t be afraid to take opinions and people shouldn’t be afraid to voice their opinions. You never know, the next iconic Disney character could come from an intern. Catmull says that great movies are made from the “tens of thousands of ideas” that go into them from beginning to completion (Stallard, 2015). This is probably very true. If hundreds of people are working on one project, they may have 1000 thoughts a day. He also maintains that the environment must be safe to tell the truth. This goes with being able to have open communication, and not being afraid to have an opinion.

In general, Disney Pixar Animation Studios does many things to make sure that it not only runs smoothly, but it had open communication and mutual working relationships on all levels. I think that it does a pretty good job at doing this. After making mistakes and realizing it, they did something to fix it. Instead of hoping that the problem fixed itself, they took initiative and came up with solutions. These solutions have worked out for everyone in the company. Not only are they now focusing more on their people, but they are focusing more on content instead of timelines. Pixar is learning from its mistakes and doing it right.

Other organizations could learn a lot from Pixar. The way that Disney Pixar was able to turn their company around after seeing how their employees were suffering, is admirable. Some organizations are ridged, and set in their way with the belief that they are doing the best for their company to run. This is also what Ed Catmull thought. But it turns out that if you talk to the employees, there are things happening that even the President wouldn’t know about. By helping the employees change and by opening communication, it also opens new opportunities and ideas. By doing this, Pixar has been able to further themselves as a company and is now one of the most successful Animation companies in the world.



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@. (2016). How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

Reingold, J. (2016). 5 ways your company can be like Pixar. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

Stallard, M. (2015). Pixar’s Competitive Advantage? A Connection Culture. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

Catmull, E. (2014, April). Building a sense of purpose at Pixar. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

18 Principles from Pixar’s Culture. (2016). Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

Ziv, R. V. (n.d.). 6 ways Pixar successfully fosters innovation and creativity in teams. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from

Avtgis, T. A., & Rancer, A. S. (2012). Organizational communication: Strategies for success (Second ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Pub


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