Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
Creativity, Inc.
Genre: Management

Hardcover | 368 pp. | Random House | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
5.0 rating

Creativity, Inc is probably one of the most inspiring books on organisational culture I have ever read. The main reason is that it is written by a leader that explains the reasons for putting place intentionally a healthy culture aligned with the purpose of the business he was building: Pixar. We all know the results of this: Toy Story, Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-e, are just some of the titles produced by Pixar and that are part of the collective memory of the current generation. All marked by a sense of perfection and creativity that would have been impossible to achieve had the culture of the organisation been different.

I discovered this book reading Francesca Gino’s Rebel Talent. She uses the Pixar example thoroughly in her book to demonstrate some of the characteristics of Rebel Talent. However, understanding the account first hand by the crafter to this specific culture is a significant hit. Again, the word that I want to use more is intentionally crafting a culture that enables business performance. This book is mostly about this. And what’s good about it, is that it does not cling to the “kind of simplicity that seemed harmful in that it offers false reassurance” (these are Ed Catmull’s own words in chapter 3) of many business books. This book is indeed full of clues as what to do, and it is not shy in showing the complexity of the endeavour. 

The Leader That didn’t want to Manage

The author dedicates much space in his book on how he became a manager, interrogating himself on what does it mean to manage well. His critical message is that most people are never really prepared to manage. We assume that people will “learn” this skillset just by climbing the organisational pyramid, but it is a big mistake because ion most case what they learn is only control and micro-management. Ed Catmull is, however, an exception to this, as he always questioned himself on how to manage and how to lead. He listened to the leaders he met and tried to distil lessons from each of them.

Alex Schure taught him to have total confidence in the people he hired. I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am. In his initial work at the NYIT, he learnt that giving a ton of freedom to highly self-motivated people enabled us to make some significant technological leaps in a short time.

During his period at Lucasfilm, he took for himself the assignment of rethinking how to manage people. Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas—they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who’d be charged with employing them. I took that lesson to heart.

One of the significant sources of inspiration for his managerial mindset has been the “Toyota Principle”, whereby every employee could stop the assembly line if he had found anything problematic. The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line.

I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

A big lesson for him has also been understanding the relationship between managing and leading. I think one of the most interesting points he makes is about the relationship with the workplace. As leaders, you need to support employees to strike a balance between their work and private life, by enabling it. But leadership also means paying close attention to ever-changing dynamics in the workplace.

At a certain point in his career, Ed Catmull had a question that bounced back and forth in his mind. As he reasoned about other massive companies failures, What was causing smart people to make decisions that sent their companies off the rails? Often these failures involved also companies that previously had demonstrated real innovations. Whatever these forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments. His answer has been his focus on Candor as a way to prevent self-complacency. 

Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

As he describes his task, he is even more focused: I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. 

As he speaks about his role and his personal Purpose, Catmull focuses on learning. After the analysis of the first movie created at Pixar, he focused on one key question for himself and the leadership team. How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way? That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

Pixar, the real Creativity, Inc.

Pixar is the real creation of Ed Catmull and his cofounders. The hand of Steve Jobs has been substantial as it also shaped some aspects of the culture, but he has not focused from the beginning on the intentional element of the culture creation.

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

The journey was not an easy one. The author, for example, describes the experience linked to the first movie developed by Pixar: Toy Story. A great success. Yet as he analyzed what has happened, Catmull discovered that there had been frictions between two of the departments in the organisation during the working of the film. This was a revelation to me: The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers.

He identified many problems in what he defined as well-intended micromanaging. For example, when confusing communication structure and organisational structure. Many managers had implemented something we deem normal in most organizations: you need to go up the chain of command to talk to other departments. But this was counter to the idea of creating a truly creative culture.

The exchange of information was key to our business, of course, but I believed that it could—and frequently should—happen out of order, without people getting bent out of shape.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

The other big lesson was about the focus on processes. As Pixar went through the second movie, they soon realized that relying heavily on the process was a mistake. We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. Words like quality and excellence get scoured around organisations like meme, is that they must be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about our processes. 

Creativity (un)defined

Catmull does not spend much time explaining creativity. But he is unequivocal at what is needed to develop an environment that stimulates creativity.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

ListeningCuriosityLearning Agility are all skills that become foundational in the development of creativity. He spends many pages discussing the concept of what a good idea is. But essentially tells that too often we fall in love with the concept of an Idea, disconnecting it from the people that enable that idea. Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.

Honesty and Candor

The two real foundational values that have helped Pixar to prosper are Honesty and Candor. Traditional management, but also fundamental human nature, often develop good reasons not to be honest. But this creates issues in seeing through problems at early stages. Chapter 5 concentrates a lot on The Braintrust, which we can see as the pinnacle expression of “intentional candor”. It’s a meeting where peers review the status of a film during the making and discuss feedback openly. This entity does not have authority, and this is crucial for its functioning. The director will still choose if and what to embed in the making of the film. However, what this meeting does is that it allows us to ensure that there is a decoupling between the idea and who represents if. You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. This I genuinely think is the maturity element of an organisation built on Candor.

Fear and Failure

To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Chapter 6 focuses on Fear and Failure, as two other distinctive features of creative culture. The issue is that for most of us, failure comes with baggage, we feel that failure is wrong, something to be ashamed of. We need to think about failure differently. But the author is crystal clear in not aligning with what many understand as a consequence. The way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

It’s easier said than done. And the issue lies in the way we organise our hierarchies in organisations. Getting middle managers to tolerate (and not feel threatened by) problems and surprises is one of our most important jobs; they already feel the weight of believing that if they screw up, there will be hell to pay. How do we get people to reframe the way they think about the process and the risks?

The antidote is to enable Trust in the organisation, and this can only work through patience, authenticity and consistency. Transparency is also vital as an attribute to develop a fearless culture. 

Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason—our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

Feeding the Beast

Chapter 7 focuses on a concept that is rarely seen in business books and is one of the main takeaways for me.

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

As management develops in an organisation, often we end up focusing on self-sustaining the organisation itself. Which is not necessarily harmful, but it can become problematic if it is the only objective the management gives itself. Any company’s profit margin depends in large part on how effectively it uses its people. So much attention is put in avoiding having “idle time”. Which is why at too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end. Which becomes the critical issue for most companies.

The key to preventing this is a balance. I see the give and take between different constituencies in a business as central to its success. 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.

Change and Randomness

There is no growth or success without change

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Chapter 8 is entirely dedicated to how much Change has pervaded Pixar’s culture. If change is inevitable, however, this does not justify not understanding why people might be resistant to change. It is precisely because of the inevitability of change that people fight to hold on to what they know.

Here’s what we all know, deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.

The toolkit

The third section of the book (Chapter 10, 11) is dedicated to a detailed description of the critical methods that Pixar uses to develop its culture. I won’t cover these in details, but I just want to underline how important some of these rituals are in the intentional definition of the Pixar culture. We’ve already mentioned the Braintrust, and a further section of the book will then be dedicated to another important moment: The Notes Day that is explained in-depth in chapter 13.

What’s vital is that you need these tools in place to ensure you can scale your culture to the new entrants, and you need to invest much time to drive the culture and ensure your principles don’t get diluted.

However, rituals alone don’t suffice: you need to focus also on building the right mindset in people continually.

Expanding the Model: Disney

Chapter 12 tells the story of the sale that Steve Jobs did of Pixar to Disney. A complex process that took time and was also intentionally designed to preserve the culture of Pixar. It was a weird merger because Ed Catmull ended also heading the Disney Animation as a result.

This chapter becomes then the story of how to reinvigorate Disney Animation to apply the same principles that had made Pixar successful. It was a complicated process because it was not just about a “copy and paste” exercise. The leaders chose not to mix the people of the companies, as they feared a dilution of the culture would result (something that indeed often happens in M&A activities). The process was long, and in some cases involved removing some of the Disney managers. But the relentless focus on spreading Candor, learning from Failures and empowering people paid off.

Notes Day

Chapter 13 is entirely dedicated to an even that has marked a “reinvention” of Pixar itself. As the organisation was growing, it became clear that some features of its original culture needed to be reviewed. Costs were increasing, and the market was becoming more competitive. It was time to reinvent the organisation. Like many other companies, a leadership retreat was called to study the problem. But in pure Pixar style, the leadership team decided to ask the employees for possible solutions rather than use a top-down approach.

The results where amazing. After a massive effort in the organisation of the day, also here intentionally designed to be run by internal people and not external consultants, the level of participation was high. Besides the thousands of ideas collected (often much more ambitious than those of the leadership team), the critical result was in a restorative view of the Values of Pixar’s culture. We broke the logjam that was getting in the way of Candor and making it feel dangerous.

The truth is, as challenges emerge, mistakes will always be made, and our work is never done. We will always have problems, many of which are hidden from our view; we must work to uncover them and assess our own role in them, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; when we then come across a problem, we must marshal all our energies to solve it. If those assertions sound familiar, that’s because I used them to kick off this book. There’s something else that bears repeating here: 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. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

Steve Jobs

An afterword is dedicated to Steve Jobs and the personal experience that Catmull had with him. He gives a picture somewhat different from that of other books, that focused more on the odd sides of Jobs’ genius. For him, Steve had been a mentor and partner, and above all, a person that evolved during the years.

Steve Jobs did not intervene a lot in the day to day management of Pixar, because he acknowledged he did not know that business. But he did play a vital role in the planning of the Pixar building that today carries his name. A perfect example of Designing for Serendipity as we have already seen.

You’ve heard the saying “Your employees are your most important asset.” For most executives, these are just words you trot out to make people feel good—while they may be accepted as true, few leaders alter their behavior or make decisions based upon them. But Steve did, taking that principle in building our headquarters around it.

Conclusion

This book is a must-read for any manager. The biggest objection that I envision is that many would say, but our business is different. To me, any organisation that today announces that it doesn’t need creativity is probably setting its path to irrelevance. 

Another objection might come from those industries where “zero-waste” or “six sigma” lean principles have been implemented to the core, developing the idea that error-free is a must. I think that there is a misconception here. If you are an airline, for sure you don’t want failure during a flight. But that’s what flight simulators exist. To enable mistakes and learnings. You want to ensure that if something happens, every employee will do its best to halt the line and stop the process precisely because there are lives at stake.

The culture we have already mentioned is a critical component of Organisation DesignProbably even more so in the current age of Transformation. Ed Catmull demonstrates how vital it is to be intentional in this design, and to foster the competencies that are more relevant to ensure the necessary creativity that drives innovation. It’s a great deal of what we have seen as being Deliberately Developmental. Although the author never really envisaged a complete red of traditional hierarchy, the culture of Pixar has a lot of the elements that Corporate Rebels have identified as key for the new organisations to prosper.

And you? Are you ready to build your own Creativity, Inc.?

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Creativity, Inc.
Genre: Management | Rating: 5/5
By Ed Catmull
Hardcover | 368 pp. | Random House | 08/04/2014 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9780593070093
Buy on Amazon

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