Creativity, Inc.

© Disney • Pixar

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation. It’s really good. So many business books come across as superficial or self-serving PR pieces. But Catmull has created an enlightening, useful book filled with candid insights into the creative powerhouses he has helped to build.

Catmull tells the fascinating story of how Pixar came to be and then goes on to share how they have adapted in response to internal challenges to continue making remarkable movies. This is a particularly great read if you are responsible for leading other creative people or if you are part of a team of creatives. Catmull doesn’t sugarcoat Pixar’s success. He focuses repeatedly on failures and stresses that have forced the company to keep reinventing its processes.

This book is worthwhile for anyone who wants to understand what it takes to create and cultivate a great organizational culture.

If you’re part of an organization or a team or a family even, and you care about it being the best it can be, you must care about the group’s culture. If you’re not intentional about shaping and cultivating the culture, then brace yourself for the culture to be shaped randomly, and possibly destructively. Culture is everything for an organization.

It’s clear that Catmull and his partner John Lasseter (and the late Steve Jobs) were meticulous in crafting the culture of Pixar to bring out the best in the creative people on their team. And they’re still learning and failing and trying new approaches.

Here are some passages I highlighted as I read:

“Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do.”

“My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world.”

“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.”

“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, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

“You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. 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.”

“My rule of thumb is that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.”

“Better to have train wrecks with miniature trains than with real ones.”

“Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them—and, more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our awareness, trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention. It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something. As the composer Philip Glass once said, ‘The real issue is not how do you find your voice, but … getting rid of the damn thing.'”

“My goal has never been to tell people how Pixar and Disney figured it all out but rather to show how we continue to figure it out, every hour of every day. How we persist. The future is not a destination—it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when, inevitably, we stray. I already can sense the next crisis coming around the corner. To keep a creative culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.”

“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.”

What a refreshing book. Great stories. Candid insights. Humble confessions. Helpful advice from many of the key players at Pixar on how to work in a more effective and creative way. Pixar can seem to do no wrong. (Except for Cars 2. What happened there?) This book continues the string of excellent stories from what has become maybe our nation’s most iconic story teller.