The synthetic organization, part 3

pencils by Paul Worthington
{See The synthetic organization, Part 1
The synthetic organization, Part 2 }

Pixar is not like any other studio. Part of this may stem from the fact that its medium of choice is all about
synthesis, in the ancient Greek definition of bringing together. Every frame has to be created. A director and a cinematographer can not just sit together and film a reality that already exists.

This goes beyond collaboration, as almost every film is a collaboration. Every single pixel in a CGI has to be put there for a reason. But, for it to be realistic in any sense, these pixels have to be put together in an integrated whole.

So the medium for a computer animated movie is very different than a normal motion picture. Pixar is the only studio that seems to have really incorporated this idea into its being, creating a model for how to use synthesis to produce products that no one else can. And generating an organizational structure that maintains this drive for synthesis.

Synthesis requires a strong social network to be most effective. Especially with something as complex as creating a new environment, while also pushing the edge of the technology and creating a stunning narrative. Part of this can be seen in the interesting approach Pixar has for leaders.

The lack of hierarchy seen with Web 2.0 approaches does not mean that there are no leaders, no one at the top. But it is a different sort of leader than often expected, one who helps hold the central vision of the community and can act as a facilitator of the community’s needs.

Leaders at Pixar come forward, do their part and then sit back to let someone else lead. Usually they come from inside the community but sometimes they have come from outside. This almost ad hoc form of leadership is one of the main differences between Pixar and other organizations that are built on hierarchies.

This form of leadership reminded me of a quote from Margaret Wheatley’s essay on the Unplanned Organization.

I also want to emphasize that emergent organizations are leader-full, not leaderless. Leaders emerge and recede as needed. Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.

Her description of the emergent properties of a self-organizing community seems very odd, yet it has many overlaps with Pixar.

The reason I think this is so problematic for us is that you cannot plan; you can only watch once you’re in the process of being together. You can only notice what’s happening, and then tinker with it. Instead of creating dream teams, you just get into the process of organizing and see what emerges. That feels unplanned, it looks messy, it smacks us in the face; it goes against all the ways we have been taught to be effective leaders, or effective individuals. In contemporary society, we’ve gone crazy with goal-setting and planning and thinking about our lives in a linear progression.

An organization as a simulacrum of life. While her metaphor may go a little too far, it does have some real insights.

The interconnectedness of the Web 2.0 social network may have emergent properties that permit novel solutions to complex problems. Leadership, which is needed to complete any difficult task, is simply a form of behavior which emerges from the community as needed.

Look at some of her points.

Organizations are made up of intelligent beings who can be mobilized for change.
Experimentation is necessary.
Messes are used to produce well-ordered solutions.
The best solution is the one that works, not the most elegant.
There are many paths that can be taken, so understanding when to change paths is important.
There are more opportunities as the community progresses along its path.

Anyone working in a sector requiring synthesis for solutions should have a structure mimicking the Unplanned Organization. Machine-based hierarchies focussed on defined processes may not be the best approach .

Becoming a truly synthetic organization provides the best model and Pixar seems to come very close to this. In doing so, it is able to retain its creative talent while providing opportunities not seen with other companies.

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