Lessons from Toy Story

Day 16

Leadercast ~ Ed Catmull.


We recently renovated our basement following a flood  last summer and as part of the process we embarked on  a major purge of items which we had moved from home  to home during the last 20 years. One of the boxes which  ended up in the Value Village pile was loaded with every Disney video produced between 1989 and 2006. Before DVDs, Netflix and Satellite TV, renting a video was a Saturday treat and the kids and I would cuddle on the couch with our popcorn and enjoy the latest release. Receiving videos as gifts became a ritual and Disney has been responsible for the most popular titles ~ everything from The Little Mermaid to Toy Story to Beauty and the Beast. So, having been a fan for over 20 years, I was thrilled that Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation, was one of the speakers at Leadercast 2015.

Like most of us, I’m intrigued by the story behind the story and Ed took us on a journey of the success of Pixar and Disney, but he also shared some of the failures and most importantly the lessons learned from the failures.

As a school board, we are exploring innovation and creativity and looking for ways to harness both in order to engage and empower our staff and our students.  So Pixar’s Guiding Principles certainly provide some food for thought and some parallels between a vast community that creates Blockbuster animated movies and a school system looking to create a community of innovative thinkers and lifelong learners.

Pixar’s Guiding Principles

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.

I can clearly recall my first week within my current role and with great exuberance, following a discussion with our Director, I had emailed the assistants of each superintendent to get a copy of school improvement plans in order to connect it with our work.   The “send” button was still warm, when I was invited into my supervisor’s office and gently reminded that such requests needed to go through her and that I was not to contact Superintendents directly.  I continue to struggle with the notion of “lines of communication” as I feel that it inhibits the true essence of the message being shared.  If it is my idea, then doesn’t it make sense that I’m the one sharing it and responding to questions or concern?

Although I’m quick to recall when my freedom has been inhibited, I need to ensure that members of my team don’t feel that I inhibit their freedom to communicate with others in our organization.

  1. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.

Catmull talked about removing the power structure from the room. I wonder how many leaders are capable of such “leveling of the status” field. Far too often I’ve been in meetings where the most senior and seasoned voice is the one that carries the clout and ultimately the final decision.

Once again, my own take-away is one of reflection on the meetings within our various teams within the Language portfolio and the Instructional coaching team.  Do all of the members of our teams feel safe to share their innovative ideas?

  1. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.

Likewise for those of us in education, we need to stay current in our field and we need to publish and share what we are doing. Are we making a cognizant effort to make our thinking and learning visible?  Am I doing all that I can to ensure that our teams are staying close to the innovations emerging in supporting teacher professional learning?


As I prepare this post, various scenes from some of my  favourite Disney/Pixar movies are scrolling through my  head. I recall when the toys in Toy Story needed to take  on a task or escape some impending doom ~ each  member contributed something useful, whether it was  Mr. Potato Head’s eyeball to see under a doorway, Barbie’s flirtatious moves to distract Ken or Rex’s large tail used to tackle the enemy. I can’t help but wonder if the inclusive community created at Disney/Pixar is being represented within their films. Everyone is a valued member and the task at hand can not be completed without everyone’s strength’s being utilized.

These guiding principles are not only intended for the corporate level. When you reflect on your role as a teacher, do you embed those principles in your classroom environment?

Come write with me….