What Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Can Teach Us about Culture, Performance, and Innovation
Wait! If you’re looking at this meme and squinting your eyes and tilting your head to the left, or sliding your cursor towards the back button, let me explain. I recently came across Monsters, Inc. on Disney+, and revisiting this cherished childhood classic as an adult offered me a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of appreciation for its messages. For those that haven’t seen it, I highly encourage that you do – but until then, I’ll provide you with a short synopsis (warning: there will be spoilers).
Pixar transports its viewers to the streets of Monstropolis, a thriving urban centre home to a menagerie of monstrous marvels. For three generations, the Waternooses have run Monsters, Inc., an energy company that powers the city by harvesting energy from the screams of human children. The film follows the company’s consecutive title holder for ‘scarer of the month,’ James P. Sullivan (Sulley) and his one-eyed sidekick, Mike Wazowski. While monsters must scare children to elicit screams, their job remains perilous as they must frighten their own biggest fears (I hope the meme above will start to make more sense now). As Monsters Inc.’s CEO Waternoose says, “there is nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child.”
For generations, Monsters, Inc. has been leading the energy production industry. However, times are changing, and there are scarier things in the world to children than the monsters in their closets, leaving Monstropolis grappling with an energy shortage. And then, Sulley and Mike are presented with a much greater challenge: a child crosses through her closet door into the world of monsters. Their risky decision to return her home safely unearths two revelations that radically reshape their understanding of what they formerly accepted as unalterable truths. They experience a paradigm shift: children are neither toxic nor lethal, and laughter actually possesses an exponentially greater power-generating capacity than screams.
So, what does this film tell us about organizational culture?
1) Positive organizational culture drives productivity.
The movie begins in the simulation room of the factory, where aspiring scarers undergo training under the guidance of Mr. Waternoose. He incites fear within the new hires by emphasizing the perceived threat children pose, stating “a single touch could kill you.” Mr. Waternoose insists that scarers must adhere to the tried-and-true methods that have proven successful in past generations…even though energy production is down.
When leaders encounter circumstances where conventional approaches no longer yield desired results, it may be instinctual to tighten the reins and push employees to exert greater effort in perfecting those once-reliable tactics. This happens early in the film when Sulley sacrifices his leisure time to exercise, hoping that will help his performance. The rewards system in Monsters Inc., symbolized by the large scoreboard looming over the scare floor, also suggests that greater effort leads to greater results.
In his new role as CEO (oops, spoiler), however, Sulley implements a more profitable, sustainable, and efficient energy production method – this is a prime example of “working smarter, not harder.” In fact, extensive research has effectively debunked the misconception that harder work = greater results, providing evidence to support that top-down approaches create rigid environments that actually hinder productivity. As shown by research conducted by Gallup, a positive organizational culture where employees feel engaged improves motivation and generates greater productivity and profitability by 18% and 23%, respectively.
2) Positive organizational culture encourages innovation.
A culture where employees are not engaged not only impedes productivity, but also stifles the creativity needed to promote innovation. Similar to how scarers began losing their effect on children, an oversaturated market can lead to a company’s inability to produce desired outcomes using previously profitable methods. The second scene in the film alludes to this: Mike and Sulley are watching an ad for Monsters Inc. on TV, which showcases Mr. Waternoose proudly declaring that in response to the energy shortage, the company is “prepared for the future with the top scarers… the best refineries and research into new energy techniques.”
Research by McKinsey & Company shows that while many leaders desire innovation, they often don’t cultivate the conditions necessary for effective implementation and execution of it. To drive innovation, organizations must foster a culture where employees feel supported, encouraged, and empowered to leave fear at the door and to open new ones, without fear of repercussions. In Monsters Inc., Sulley takes the risk of interacting with Boo and it’s this that helps him uncover an inventive solution to the power crisis. This discovery unearths an energy source that was not only 10x more potent than screams, but also mutually rewarding.
3) Want innovation? Change your prescription!
We cannot expect innovation to emerge by approaching old problems through the same lens. Despite the significant advantage stemming from the diversity of monsters employed at Monsters Inc., Mr. Waternoose’s unwavering commitment to replicating his family’s tactics prevented the exploration of innovative solutions to resolve the energy crisis. The idea that more socially diverse teams generate more innovation and productivity is a well-known concept. Extensive research conducted by McKinsey&Company has demonstrated that companies with greater ethnic and cultural diversity outperform their less diverse counterparts by a notable margin of 36%.
Hiring a diverse team is not enough, however. Creating an inclusive culture that leverages different backgrounds, skills, perspectives, experiences, and strengths is what will foster nonlinear thinking, giving the company a true competitive advantage. The Harvard Business Review highlights how “inherently diverse contributors understand the unmet needs in under-leveraged markets,” while lacking diverse leadership promotes complacency and similar thinking, which harms the company’s pivotal market opportunities.
This strengthens the idea that company culture plays an increasingly integral role in propelling innovation, disrupting industries, and establishing a genuine competitive advantage. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, studies revealed a notable surge in employee attrition, a phenomenon often referred to as “The Great Resignation.” Interestingly, this trend was not primarily driven by the pursuit of higher salaries, but rather by the desire to join organizations that provided greater fulfillment and alignment with the employee’s values and sense of purpose. In response to this shift, it is imperative that companies cultivate a people-centered culture that not only attracts talent, but also retains it.
If you’re interested in learning more about how Pixar themselves have garnered a reputation for fostering a culture that drives innovation, click here!
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