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Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

78 highlighted passages. I couldn’t resist. I’m not the type of person to highlight parts of a book (ebook or normal), but there were too many great thoughts in Creativity, Inc. that I wanted to be able to remember and pull out later. The real truth is that I could probably highlight the entire book. It’s that good.

In the beginning …

Our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.

Creativity, Inc.

The book opens with Ed Catmull’s background and Pixar’s humble beginnings. It’s a refreshing start because so many stories of success begin at the first successful project. In truth, there’s often years before that where the person or company bounce around from idea to idea, learning and growing. The core group that became Pixar started as a Lucasfilm department that Lucas ended up selling while going through a costly divorce. The sale stagnated for over a year until Steve Jobs stepped in to buy them and forge them into an independent hardware and software company. It was only after several years of low sales and struggles that they finally settled into their now familiar role of animated motion picture powerhouse.

Stories of early Pixar and the trials and successes from the many movies they’ve made since are interspersed with the hard lessons learned along the way. There’s much sage advice, generously sprinkled onto the meat of the original problems, their underlying causes, and anecdotes revealing them. Instead of just trite sayings, you walk away from each new piece of wisdom understanding where it came from and how it affected the culture of Pixar.

Ed Catmull is a true engineer, with an analytical mind that loves digging into problems to find and fix the root cause rather than applying patches to hide the symptoms. He takes a fairly humble view of his own importance at the company, choosing to focus on other key players’ roles and responses to situations. He does a great job of highlighting his team, quoting directors, producers, and other leadership directly about their successes and refraining from pointing blame and shaming individuals when discussing problems that arose.

Throughout the book, as he tells story after story, he builds out Pixar’s core principles and then near the end, he unleashes a torrent of practical tools and advice built around those principles.

Seven core principles for a creative culture

The Creativity, Inc. website provides these seven core principles without having to buy the book, but it’s still well worth the investment to understand where they came from and the tools and methods they used to build on them.

Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.

Creativity, Inc.
  1. Quality is the best business plan. It’s easy to say that quality is the standard you aim for; how you actually strive to achieve it is a completely different matter.
  2. Failure isn’t a necessary evil. Catmull calls out the “fail fast” mentality of startups today and at the same time argues that failure is a necessary risk of any truly creative endeavor.
  3. People are more important than ideas. Ideas are simple. Improving and implementing them well starts with the team.
  4. Prepare for the unknown. There will always be problems. Expect them and enable your employees to fix them without getting in the way.
  5. Do not confuse the process with the goal. There are alway better ways of doing things; the goal isn’t to make things better, it’s to make better things.
  6. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody. “Proper” channels are never efficient when it comes to bringing out the best ideas.
  7. Give good notes. Candid feedback is a common theme throughout the book. Enabling your people to be honest with each other and with leadership will ultimately lead to better products and better culture.

The tools in Pixar’s toolbox

While I’m certain Creativity, Inc. doesn’t reveal every arrow in Pixar’s immense quiver, it does showcase several major tools they use to keep their creative process and culture running smoothly. Here’s a bit about some of my favorites.

The Brain Trust

We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.

Creativity, Inc.

The Brain Trust is their concept of a small group of people who offer direct feedback on movies and stories as they progress. It’s made up of leadership, directors, and producers and it’s defining characteristic is candor. Everyone who participates is encouraged to be completely honest about what they see so they can identify problems with an idea early. There were a few very important takeaways for me from the Brain Trust:

  • The Brain Trust identifies problems and may discuss potential solutions, but they leave the final solution up to the director that owns the idea. While the problem with a scene may be obvious, the solution often comes from changing things elsewhere in the story. Ultimately the director is responsible and most qualified to make the right decision.
  • Candor and actionable feedback is the desired result. Leadership can set the tone by providing the baseline and example, but encouraging everyone to participate results in a more well-rounded view of any problems.
  • Meet often enough to catch major problems early, but not so often that it becomes a hindrance to creativity. The Brain Trust typically meets every 3 or 4 months to see the progress being made. Ideas take time to germinate and grow, and protecting them early is important. At the same time, if there is a major problem that the director is too close to see, it’s imperative that others help point out while there’s still time to change direction.
  • Pay attention to how the environment affects hierarchy and participation. One story focuses on how a long table in a conference room ended up forcing lower-level employees to the periphery of discussions and an unintentional enforcement of pecking order. If you value candor and feedback from everyone, pay attention to hidden things that might hinder those.

Notes Day

After Disney bought Pixar, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter took over the day to day operations of both Disney Animation and Pixar. This resulted in less direct involvement with Pixar as they strived hard to identify and correct the problems that had left Disney Animation struggling for over a decade. Notes Day was a major initiative at Pixar to enable the entire company to participate in evaluating and shaping their culture going forward.

There’s an entire chapter on the evolution and implementation of Notes Day that details the process and minute decisions that made it successful. While creative companies could certainly learn from and reimplement the same process with some degree of success, I think the biggest takeaway for me was that everything about it was deliberately thought through and planned. For a different company to truly recreate and glean value from a similar experience, they must deliberately think about the whys and hows to fit their own culture.

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.

Creativity, Inc.

In conclusion

If you’re part of (or in particular, run) a creative business, this book is a must read. If you’re a fan of Pixar or Disney and love learning more about them, this book is a must read. If your job in any way involves making things for people, this book, yes, is a must read. None of those apply to you? You should still probably read this book.

Image credit: The cover image for this post was adapted from the cover image for Creativity, Inc.

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