Business Book Review
I picked up Creativity Inc. because I’ve always been enamored with Pixar. They were the first to build a computer generated feature film and they did it with style. Images of Pixar, in my mind, always came with a floating head of Steve Jobs behind it as he took another failing genre and turtle necked it into yet another success. That’s the outsider’s image of this company because of how much larger than life Jobs was. As I read more about the company in other forums, like Wired, I started to pick up on the other players that actually made Pixar a reality, guys like John Lasseter and Pete Docter who were some of the creative minds behind the wonderful films that Pixar consistently cranks out. Who I have never heard of though, was Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president. After reading the book, this is no surprise. He is an incredibly unassuming characters and clearly not one to boast about his own accomplishments, which are many (he invented texture mapping as just one example). He gives all the credit of creativity to others as if he doesn’t have the tools to tell a great story of his own. After reading the book though, this is clearly bullshit because he turns a business book about Pixar into a wonderfully crafted story that I simply could not put down. The guy is a class act through and through.
He also has a lot to teach. Ed states that the thesis of the book is ‘there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process’. A big part of this is 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. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn from it.’ This is a really powerful statement and one that most corporate folks have no interest in hearing. One of the underlying themes to the book is that candor is critical to success. Being truthful with others and yourself is the only way to learn, or as Catmull puts it: ‘Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.’
He goes deep into the interplay between teams and setting up an environment where candor can thrive. One of his pieces about teams that I loved was ‘Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.’ This is a critical mindset to have for anyone looking for truly excellent team members. Put your own ego aside and get smarter by hiring smarter people. Is there a chance that they might replace you? Sure, but there is a far larger chance that they are going to make you better. Once this environment is set up let these smart people be smart! It seems obvious but this is probably the single biggest reason why teams fail, managers don’t trust their people to fix stuff on their own. Catmull reinforced this with some quotes from Deming the most interesting of which was, ‘You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.’ He expands on Deming’s work by focusing even deeper on the people, ‘Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.’ These ideals can seem Utopian but Catmull goes on to show how they actually accomplished them at Pixar.
I really enjoyed the part of the book where he goes deeper into what he means by candor, ‘Candor is forthrightness or frankness – not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve.’ This is part of the reason why the book is so enjoyable because this is also how he writes, he doesn’t pull any punches, he is just matter of fact about things that others might tie emotional angst to. For example, ‘And yet, candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck…to go, as I say, from suck to not-suck.’ A big part of candor though is to focus on the problem and not the person. He stresses this again and again, you need to support and help each other by being truthful.
He has great advice around failure. He doesn’t look at failure as a necessary evil but as not evil at all. In fact, it is necessary to the creative process. He states that, ‘failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.’ This is easy to state but how does one enact this in real practice. Catmull states that, ‘Part of the answer is simple: If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.’ Failure is tightly coupled to fear and we need to ‘uncouple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employee’s hearts.’ He goes on to state, ‘The antidote to fear is trust.’ To show that you trust your employees means that you level with them. The default should not be to err on the side of secrecy but instead, treat them as if they are smart people worthy of trust.
One of the unavoidable results of candor is conflict. Ed states that this is natural because, ‘The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.’ Once again though, this is much easier in theory than in practice. ‘It is management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy – as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run.’
He also covers some really good stuff when it comes to what hides in the shadows, the hidden, or as Rumsfeld so inelegantly put it, the unknown unknowns. He talks about when other companies have failed in the past, ‘I believe the deeper issue is that the leaders of these companies were not attuned to the fact that there were problems they could not see. And because they weren’t aware of these blind posts, they assumed that the problems didn’t exist. Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: if you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.’
The stories he tells about Pixar and the merger with Disney were very well written in an introspective way. it also showed his ability to see if these ideals he talks about could transfer to another organization. judging by the successes Disney has had since, it’s clear they did.
The final piece I’ll cover in this review is a cool way that Pixar attacked some of their big problems. They went to their employees and asked, how would you solve these problems? They did this through what they called Notes Day. They asked a series of questions to their people and facilitated the process as their people solved them. This generated a huge amount of buy in, creativity and candor that reinforced the philosophies he talks about through the entire book.
Read it. It’s an excellent book.