Review: Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book a really interesting read, partially as it is a familiar story to us but from the inside you get a very different perspective. The focus on success never being a guarantee and that everything is random are two particularly powerful points. Without a random sequence of events Pixar would not be what it is, Disney animation studio would still be struggling and the world would be a much worse place as a result.

The book starts with the story of how Pixar came into existence from being part of Lucasfilm then being sold to Steve Jobs. At the time the company made hardware then evolved into software until the movies it is famous for today. The challenges the book go through are similar to any growing company or one which stagnates but it also tells the personal stories of Ed Catmull (the author), John Lasseter and Steve Jobs.

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

The book has a chapter with the following points, but I have added some of my own notes from the book to the end.

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right the chances are that they’ll get the idea right.
  • When hiring people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.
  • Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
  • If there are people in your organisation who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you loose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
  • It isn’t merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.
  • There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for these reasons and then address them.
  • Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions.
  • Further, if there is fear in an organisation, there is a reason for it – our job is (a) to find what’s causing it, (b) to understand it, and (c) to try to root it out.
  • There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.
  • In general, people are hesitant to say things which might rock the boat. Braintrust meetings, dailies, postmortems, and Notes Day are all efforts to reinforce the idea that it is okay to express yourself. All are mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what is real.
  • If there is more truth in the hallway than in the meeting room, you have a problem.
  • Many managers feel that if they are not notified of a problem before others are or if they are surprised in a meeting, then that is a sign of disrespect. Get over it.
  • Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.
  • The first conclusion we draw from our success and failure are typically wrong. Measuring the outcome without evaluating the process is deceiving.
  • Do 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.
  • Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover which is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
  • Similarly, it is not the managers job to prevent risk. It is the managers job to make it safe to take them.
  • Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up – it means you trust them even when they do screw up.
  • The people ultimately responsible for implementing a plan must be empowered to make decisions when things go wrong, even before getting approval. Finding and fixing problems is everyone’s job. Anyone should be able to stop the production line.
  • The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.
  • Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you show them to others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everyone should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Be wary of making too many rules. Rules can simplify life for manager, but they can be demeaning to the 95% who behave well. Don’t create rules to rein in the other 5% – address abuse of common sense individually. This is more work but ultimately healthier.
  • Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances.
  • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.
  • An organisation, as a whole, is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it. Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change – it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.
  • The healthiest organisations are made up of departments whose agenda differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.
  • Our job as managers in creative environments is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Protect the future, not the past.
  • New crises are not always lamentable – they test and demonstrate a company’s values. The process of problem-solving often bonds people together and keeps the culture in the present.
  • Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.
  • Do not accidentally make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability.
  • Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making the product is the goal.

Some of my notes:

  • Being on the lookout for problems is not the same as seeing problems.
  • Stick to your beliefs – if you pride yourself in producing quality products, don’t let anyone make you make a low quality product.
  • Never say things won’t change – things will this is inevitable.
  • Trust, candor and respect are very important thing to develop,but they need a focus as they can disappear without people realising. A group of people who highly respect each other and are prepared to be completely open and honest results in a product which is of a superior quality – in Pixar this includes the Brain trust.
  • From an early age in life people are taught that failure is bad – this is not the case failure is learning, and you will learn more from failure than you will from accidentally being successful.
  • “You’ve got to feed the beast” – for Disney these were animators, these are the people who your paying to do the work so people keep them busy doing stuff. Controlling the beast is important and sometimes ideas need to be protected.
  • People at Pixar don’t have contracts, they are there because they want to be and can leave at any time. This also means that instead of waiting for peoples contracts to expire, and to not renew them, conversations between management and employees happen as soon as they are needed.
  • Peoples brains are wires in a manner than things need to be explained. Humans don’t like the idea of randomness but ran random events happen all of the time. It is natural to assume that your product was a success because the team was great, but it could just have been you were lucky.
  • As people move higher up they see less. The position you are in means that people act differently around you and the issues you are looking for are hidden from you. You don’t understand what is happening on the “shop floor” as it is complicated, it is not possible to understand everything but additional view points should be considered additive and not dictatorial.
  • Even though people like getting a bonus they enjoy being shaken by the hand and appreciated as much or more than the money.
  • Hindsight is not 20-20, we know more about the past but we still interpret things differently as shown by two people recanting the same story. These are based on our own internal models. We also fill in the gaps and try to draw conclusions – some of which will be too sweeping.
  • Research is key – the best way to be in a creative world is to be immersed into the environment you need to be creative within. So in Pixars case if you need to animate a flamingo the best way is to go to the zoo to observe one. This also prevents derivative work and not new creativity.
  • Postmortems
    • Consider what we learned – but be careful not to construct learning which did not exist.
    • Teach others who were not there
    • Don’t let resentment foster
    • Use the schedule to force reflection
    • Pay it forward – what questions should we ask in the future?
  • Pixar University
    • Built connections between desperate teams
    • People were free to be goofy, relaxed, open and vulnerable
    • It encouraged people to become accepting with mistakes and imperfections
    • Sent a clear message that people should keep learning

The book has details of Steve Jobs role with Pixar. Other than taking it over from Lucasfilms he ensured that it was strong against Disney which was many times its size. One of the key achievements was its flotation – right after its first full length film. Steve knew that once the film was launched Disney would want to renegotiate soon after the success of the first film, to ensure that Pixar had a strong hand he needed to build up the finances and do this by floating the company at a very astute time.

The book has a very interesting description of the process of the merger between Pixar and Disney. How Steve Jobs wanted to ensure the survival of Pixar and he could not see it being independent since it lacked distribution and marketing ability. Disney was the perfect match but the risk was Pixar would be subsumed into the Disney animation studio and squashed – Steve knew this and to protect Pixar he ensured that the management of Pixar took a lead at Disney Animation.

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