Book notes: Creativity Inc.
“Creativity Inc” is a book that I absolutely adore. It’s written by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney animation. I highly recommend grabbing a copy. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:
- 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 our energies to solve it.
- Ultimately what we are after is authenticity.
- Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. I call early mockups of our films “ugly babies”. Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.
- The chaotic nature of the creative process needs to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it.
- In order for a period of greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.
- Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.
- Since everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions the embarrassment goes away. Once the embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.
- The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive. A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something.
- Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often.
- We are true believers in the power of bracing candid feedback and the iterative process — reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds it’s throughline or hollow character finds its soul.
- Candor must override hierarchy for a any creative company to succeed in the long-term.
- Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together.
- Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.
- When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless… Unhindered communication is key.
- The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee. You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.
- If the crew is confused, then the leaders are too.
- 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.
Fear and Failure
- Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.
- The antidote for fear is trust.
- Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientist towards greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.
- While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.
- Fear of change, innate, stubborn, and resistant to reason, is a powerful force. In many ways, it reminds me of musical chairs: we cling as long as possible to the perceived “safe place” that we are ready know, refusing to loosen our grip until we feel sure another safe place awaits.
- Deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: change is going to happen, whether we like it or not.
- My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermined it.
- 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.
- In many organizations, managers tend to err on the side of secrecy, keeping things hidden from employees. I believe this is the wrong instinct.
- Good leaders don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, they listen, they wrangle, coax, and cajole.
At Pixar they’ll frequently bring a director (and his or her in progress film) in with a group of other experienced storytellers. They call this a braintrust. The purpose of the braintrust is not to tell the director what to do, but to highlight areas that may be weak, and to spark ideas for moving forward.
- To understand what the braintrust does and why it is so crucial to Pixar, you have to start with the basic truth: people who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.
- The braintrust has no authority. This is crucial. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs.
- The braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.
- The process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor.
- Notably, participants do not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They test weak points, they make suggestions, but it is up to the director to settle on a path forward.
- Moreover, we don’t want the braintrust to solve the directors problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with.
- Each of the braintrust participants focus on the film at hand and not on some hidden personal agenda. They are not motivated by the kinds of things — getting credit for an idea, pleasing their supervisors, winning a point just to say you did — that too often lurk beneath the surface of work related interactions. The film itself, not the filmmaker, is under the microscope.
- The most important characteristic was an ability to analyze the emotional beats of the movie without any of its members themselves getting emotional or defensive.
- To make a great film, it’s makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others. The braintrust provides that pivot and it is necessarily painful.
- Even the most experienced braintrust can’t help people who don’t understand it’s philosophies, who refuse to hear criticism without getting defensive, or who don’t have the talent to digest feedback, reset, and start again.
Loved, loved, loved this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I don’t do comments on this blog, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.