Book Review: Creativity Inc

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Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration is the intertwined stories of Ed Catmull and Pixar Animation. It’s more than that, though. It may be the best book you’ll ever read about how leaders and organizations can make it possible for people to use their whole creative brain power. I know that’s a bold statement. Here’s why I make it.

There is a vast literature out there about how individual people can tap into their natural, God-given creativity. There’s no one best book in this crop, but if you find one that works for you, that one’s the best as far as you’re concerned.

There’s not a lot about how organizations and leaders can unleash creativity and most of it is platitudes on parade. We’re told to “fail fast and fail often” as if failing was the point. It’s not. Learning is the point. We’re told to tell people they should not be afraid to fail. What nonsense. Nobody likes to fail, and if they’re afraid to fail, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. We’re also given that advice as if there is an alternative to doing creative cutting-edge work without getting it wrong, mostly at the beginning. There isn’t. That’s the way the world works.

Some writers do a better job on this by talking about ways you can structure things so that a failure is more likely to be seen as a learning experience and where criticism and bad news can be received as gifts rather than attacks. But there’s precious little in those books about how you actually make it work and then keep it working over time.

Creativity Inc is different. The primary reason is Ed Catmull and his willingness to talk about the details of both his and Pixar’s journeys. Here’s what I consider the key quote from very early in the book.

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; but we work hard to uncover those 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.”

Early in the book, Catmull tells the story of a table in a meeting room at Pixar. The table, evidently, looks like most of the tables in most meeting rooms that I’ve been in. It was rectangular. Most of us have heard that tables with that shape aren’t exactly symbols of an egalitarian culture and that they stifle open discussion. But we keep meeting around those tables. So did Pixar.

“Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way – completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles.”

When Catmull and his crew become aware of the effect of the table, they change it. Good for them. Then they discover that there are other behaviors that may have been linked to the table originally but continue after the table is changed. For example, on the old table there were place cards indicating where people sat. Powerful people at the ends, junior people toward the middle. The new square table removed the power of shape but the place cards had become common practice, too. So, when Catmull came into the room for a meeting around the new table, he found place cards indicating where everyone should sit.

That is the book in a nutshell. Catmull covers a lot of ground and many topics, but the core book is about how he, John Lasseter, and other people at Pixar, uncovered problems and worked to solve them, nurtured creative energy, and dealt with the inevitable conflicts and surprises. Every organization that I’ve ever worked with or visited has had similar issues.

One problem putting together the review for this book is that it is simply riddled with wisdom. So, rather than give you the standard chapter summaries that I put in most reviews, I’m going to list each of the four sections and name the chapters that are in it, then share some quotes from that section. I’m sure that when you read the book, you will find your own insightful bits that are different from mine.

Part 1 is called Getting Started. The four chapters, Animated, Pixar Is Born, A Defining Goal, and Establishing Pixar’s Identity, tell the story of Ed Catmull and Pixar up until the success of “Toy Story.”

“I also didn’t yet know that my self-assigned mission was about much more than technology. To pull it off, we’d have to be creative not only technically but also in the ways that we worked together.”

“What had drawn me to science, all those years ago, was the search for understanding. Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions. As we made more movies, I would learn that some of my beliefs about why and how Pixar had been successful were wrong. But one thing could not have been more plain: 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.”

Part 2 is titled Protecting the New. That’s a theme that will run through the book from here on. The chapters are: Honesty and Candor, Fear and Failure, The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby, Change and Randomness, and The Hidden.

“Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’ This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp”

“So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.”

“One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts.”

“If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”

Part 3 is titled Building and Sustaining. There are only two chapters: Broadening Our View and The Unmade Future.

“This third section of the book is devoted to some of the specific methods we have employed at Pixar to prevent our disparate views from hindering our collaboration. In each case, we are trying to force ourselves—individually and as a company—to challenge our preconceptions.”

“Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional. Postmortems are one route into that understanding.”

Part 4, titled Testing What We Know, also has just two chapters. They are A New Challenge and Notes Day.

“The future is not a destination—it is a direction.”

One more thing. Steve Jobs played a critical role in Pixar’s success and Ed Catmull has included an afterword called The Steve Jobs We Knew. My friend, Bob Sutton, has said that Steve Jobs is something of a Rorschach test for people. You see what you think you see, and other people see the same thing and interpret it differently. My problem has always been that most of the views of Jobs freeze him in time and they don’t indicate any growth or maturity. No one as intelligent or introspective as Steve Jobs would have stayed the same for his entire life. What I loved about the afterword is that it not only gave a unique view of Jobs as both a business partner and a friend, but also talked about his growth during his life.

Bottom Line

Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration is a great book about creativity and about how to lead an organization. More importantly it is the very best book I’ve ever read about unleashing the initiative and creativity of people in an organization.


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