Creativity, Inc. | Ed Catmull

Main Theme: Creativity, management and culture.
For People Who: Want creativity to thrive in a growing organizational culture.

Creativity, Inc.has stared at me from my shelf for five months. Why I kept putting it off I’m not sure. But after reading it I feel as if I knew what to expect from it. While there are several gold nuggets in this book, I must say, I don’t think it’s a read for everybody. At times it was difficult to press through what Catmull was trying to say and other times I couldn’t put it down. If you’re really interested in hearing the story of Pixar, how it got started, achieved legendary status as an animated movie-making powerhouse, and the culture of creativity they have created, then you will love this book. Certainly there are a few incredible ideas I will take away from this book about creating a culture of creativity, but it was a tough 368 pager. I think this statement sums up Creativity, Inc.nicely:

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. –Creativity, Inc., pg 295

Take-Aways

  • Stepping into a leadership role can be fearful because we feel unprepared. Don’t let that stop you! Some of the greatest leaders in history felt the same way.
  • When team members/leaders trust each other and realize “they are not their ideas,” they are able to hear criticism of their ideas without taking it personally. Their pursuit is making the organization better not making themselves look better.
  • There is a difference between having honesty and having candor. Candor is honest, but it is frank, blunt and raw. When people are able to speak freely about ideas, without fear of hurting someone else’s feelings, then true creativity can thrive.
  • Pixar developed a special group called the “Braintrust” for directors to elicit frank feedback from other creative minds in the company. This provided a place where directors could bounce ideas around, work through difficulties they were having, or be told flat out where the movie was sucking. (I wonder how much better a pastors’ sermon would be if they had a ‘Braintrust’ meeting before they preached it?)
  • Organizational hierarchies are good for function, but not good for communication. If a person has to go through 2-3 layers of a flow chart to speak to the person they really need to, frustrations will run high and creativity will run low.
  • If people are afraid to speak their mind for fear of losing their job, position, or paycheck, you will never have a healthy culture of creativity.

Brief Summary

Chapter 1: Animated

If you pick up this book, it’s important that you remember it is primarily a story. This chapter introduces Ed Catmull (author and President of Pixar/Disney Animation) to you and how he grew to love animation. As a video editor who has done some work in 3D worlds, I was fascinated to learn that Catmull developed a number of programs that many of us in the editing world take for granted. I learned to appreciate what they were able to do with limited computing power (compared to today) in the 60s and 70s. What a time of foundation building for computer animation today!

Chapter 2: Pixar Is Born

When you mention Star Wars, you’ve captured my attention. In the late 70s Catmull went to work for George Lucas at Lucasfilm to head up their new computer division. It was here that Catmull gave himself a new challenge, “to rethink how I managed people.” (pg. 27) But before Lucasfilm, while at NYIT, a company with the vision to use computers to create animated worlds, Catmull made a hire that greatly impacted his life. He hired Alex Ray Smith. The important thing I took away was that Alex “Alvy” was much smarter and more qualified to run the company than Catmull was, but he hired him anyway. While many would shy away from doing such a thing, here is what Catmull thought about it:

When faced with a challenge, get smarter…I have met people who took what seemed the safer path and were the lesser for it…Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening. -Creativity, Inc., pg 23

Chapter 3: A Defining Goal

There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning. –Creativity, Inc., pg 45

Enter Steve Jobs – immediately the book picked up for me again. Pixar initially began as a hardware company. Only after it began to use it’s technology for commercial ads did they revisit the dream of creating the first full-length animated movie. It was during the hardware phase that Catmull says he learned one of his most valuable lessons: “You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (pg. 51) After WW2, Japanese assembly lines differed from American assembly lines in that if any worker, at any time, noticed a problem, they had the power to pull a cord that would shut down the entire line. Thus giving credence to the phrase, “total quality control.” When people are empowered, without fear, to say “STOP! We need to fix this right now before moving forward,” it enables your organization to truly get better faster.

Chapter 4: Establishing Pixar’s Identity

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. –Creativity, Inc., pg 80

It’s in this chapter we first hear about the “Braintrust,” a group who’s most important characteristic was “the ability to analyze the emotional beats of a movie without any of its members themselves getting emotional or defensive.” (pg 70) It was the Braintrust that saved Toy Story 2. Catmull has this takeaway: “Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas rights…Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” (pg. 74)

Chapter 5: Honesty and Candor

…societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions. –Creativity, Inc., pg 89

If people in an organization don’t trust one another, they will never speak their minds openly. They end up agreeing with whatever the boss says. People are genuinely afraid to say what they think for fear of offending someone.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. –Creativity, Inc., pg 94

Chapter 6: Fear and Failure

Failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. –Creativity, Inc., pg 108

I found this chapter to be very insightful about the benefits of failure. If we never fail and make mistakes, we will never grow. The issue for us is that we must bring ourselves to a point of looking past our failures to see what can be done through our failures. “For leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.” (pg 109) The question then becomes, “How do we face our failures without fear?” Catmull makes the point: “If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.” (pg 111) So run with your ideas. Some will succeed and some will fail. But don’t let the fear of failure stop you from moving forward.

Chapter 7: The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby

Fantastic chapter! “The Beast” is a “large group that needs to be fed an uninterrupted diet of new material and resources in order to function.” (pg. 129). The “Ugly Baby” is the start of a new idea: ugly, fragile, in need of care, and can be easily killed. I wrote in the margins: “church audiences are the beast!” As pastors, we are constantly under the pressure to bring new material in sermons, new perspectives on familiar Bible verses, a new program of service, etc, etc. “The Beast” can kill you if that’s all you focus on! And the “Ugly Baby” can be needy and time consuming. The point is to strike a balance.

So when I talk about taming the Beast, what I really mean is that keeping its needs balanced with the needs of other, more creative facets of your company will make you stronger. –Creativity, Inc., pg 137

Chapter 8: Change and Randomness

Catmull drops a bomb in this chapter (in my opinion)! Something so simple and common sensical, and yet one that few in organizations keep in mind:

Self-interest guides opposition to change…Once you master any system, you typically become blind to its flaws; even if you can see them, they appear far too complex and intertwined to consider changing. –Creativity, Inc., pg 153-154

No matter the organization you’re a part of: a church, a small business, etc, we can become so blinded by “how we’ve always done things” that we can’t even see where we could change to become better. Solution? “If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed.” (pg. 164)

Chapter 9: The Hidden

Catmull makes the point that hindsight is not always 20/20. Our perspective of past events causes us to see only a limited view. Often we want to take too many things away from a past event – and it leads us to not be open to other experiences in life.

…success convinces us that we are doing things the right way. There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convicted you are right. –Creativity, Incs., pg 173

Chapter 10: Broadening Our View

In this chapter Catumull lays out eight different mechanisms that help Pixar think about things from new perspectives:

  1. Dailies, or Solving Problems Together: Daily checkins to see how everybody is doing builds teamwork
  2. Research Trips: Research is important to any enterprise and always helps rather than hinders
  3. The Power of Limits: Setting parameters helps us refocus our efforts on what’s important
  4. Integrating Technology and Art
  5. Short Experiments: When you have a new idea, try it out in a small way first. It’s okay if a toy train gets destroyed, it’s not okay when a full size locomotive gets derailed.
  6. Learning to See: “…learn to set aside preconceptions.” (pg. 214) Don’t let preconceptions precede problems.
  7. Postmortems: Self evaluate! “Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do.” (pg. 219-220)
  8. Continuing to Learn

Chapter 11: The Unmade Future

Catmull gives several analogies of what it feels and looks like to lead. One line from Andrew Staton, a director at Pixar, stuck out to me: “People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you’ve effed up. It’s a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions.” (pg 228)

Chapter 12: A New Challenge

This chapter gets back into full-fledged story mode and I loved it. The decision was made to sell Pixar to Disney (what doesn’t Disney own!?). But Ed Catmull and John Lasseter (Pres & Exe VP of Pixar) would lead both Pixar Animation as well as Disney Animation studios. Wow is it interesting to see how these two men were able to turn Disney Animation around by implementing a new culture within the organization based on what Pixar does. Disney didn’t have a number one movie in 16 years – since the merger they have produced blockbusters like: Frozen, Tangled, and Wreck-It-Ralph. (all #1 hits)

Easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal. –Creativity, Inc., pg. 273

Chapter 13: Notes Day

Again, this chapter is a story of Pixar coming together to solve a company-wide problem: how do we reduce our per-movie budget by 10%. On Notes Day, all of Pixar shuts down in order to elicit feedback from employees. Catmull lays out how they do it and why. It is a pretty inspiring chapter to read.

CONCLUSION

As a pastor, my thought about “Notes Day” was this: I think Pastors feel an enormous amount of pressure to be “Moses coming down from the mountain with the law after meeting with God.” We feel we have to have all the answers, we have to have all the ideas, and we have to make it all work. And when people leave churches, we take it personally because it’s our leadership and ideas they are walking away from. But remember, God didn’t originally intend for only Moses to come up the mountain: the people got afraid and they sent Moses up the mountain. So what if we, as leaders, started to invite people into the process? What if we as leaders began to elicit input from the people who attend our churches? Maybe we would find someone with a “5 small loaves and 2 small fish” idea we would have never thought of, and it changes everything!

INFORMATION AND PERSONAL RATING

General Information:

Personal Ratings (1-10)

    • Applicability: 8
    • Readability: 6
    • Originality: 7-8
    • Recommendation: Yes if some of the ideas in the summary are what you’re looking for. But you will hit some slow spots.
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