Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

By Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace


Pixar might be the most recognizable movie studio in the world. My generation grew up on animated films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Ed Catmull is the president of Pixar, and a founder. He’s overseen a two-decade run of success. In this book, he shows how Pixar evolved from a directionless tech company to a filmmaking powerhouse. Creativity, Inc. is not about singular genius. Catmull isn’t taking all the credit; he’s trying to describe a management style that’s about empowering people to do their best work. A must-read for anyone in a leadership position. With cameos from Steve Jobs.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.

I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.

Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavor. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve—think of that as an oak tree—and then there are all the other problems—think of these as saplings—that sprouted from the acorns that fell around it.

The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company—and, by extension, you—look good. But there is another, less obvious, payoff that only occurred to me in retrospect. The act of hiring Alvy changed me as a manager: By ignoring my fear, I learned that the fear was groundless.

Being confident about the value of our innovation was not enough. We needed buy-in from the community we were trying to serve.

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

Instead of merely repeating an action, workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and—this next element seemed particularly important to me—feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken.

Whatever these forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments.

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.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched.

Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.

It was management’s job to take the long view, to intervene and protect our people from their willingness to pursue excellence at all costs.

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

When we trust the process—or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process—we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries.

The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against—they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think they’ve been vanquished.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.

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 (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion—and ultimately doesn’t work).

Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.

Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk.

Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.

In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly.

When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.

Our actions and behaviors, for better or worse, teach those who admire and look up to us how to govern their own lives.

Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.

A manager’s default mode should not be secrecy.

Your employees are smart; that’s why you hired them. So treat them that way.

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.

In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognize the importance of balancing competing desires—they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win.

The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive.

As long as our intentions—our values—remain constant, our goals can shift as needed.

Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.

Managers do not need to work hard to protect established ideas or ways of doing business. The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.

It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.

The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.

For many people, changing course is also a sign of weakness, tantamount to admitting that you don’t know what you are doing. This strikes me as particularly bizarre—personally, I think the person who can’t change his or her mind is dangerous.

Self-interest guides opposition to change, but lack of self-awareness fuels it even more.

The simple explanation is so desirable that it is often embraced even when it’s completely inappropriate.

Remember that while we are quick to assign patterns and causes to an event after it occurs, beforehand we don’t even see it coming.

We must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.

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.

Everyone says they want to hire excellent people, but in truth we don’t really know, at first, who will rise up to make a difference.

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there,” as Mark Twain once said, “lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

By making the struggles to solve the problems safe to discuss, then everyone learns from—and inspires—one another.

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.

You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar.

We are striving to tell you something impactful and true. When attempting to make good on that promise, no detail is too small.

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.

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

Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do. And at least every once in a while, make time to take a step back and think about what you are doing.

We begin life, as children, being open to the ideas of others because we need to be open to learn. Most of what children encounter, after all, are things they’ve never seen before. The child has no choice but to embrace the new. If this openness is so wonderful, however, why do we lose it as we grow up?

In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.

Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.

It is sobering to think that in trying to be mindful, some of us accidentally end up being exactly the opposite. We deflect and ignore.

Earning trust takes time; there’s no shortcut to understanding that we really do rise and fall together. Without vigilant coaching—pulling people aside who didn’t speak their minds in a particular meeting, say, or encouraging those who seem eternally hesitant to jump into the fray—our progress could have easily stalled. Telling the truth isn’t easy.

It’s difficult sometimes to tell the difference between what is impossible and what is possible (but requires a big reach).

In big organizations there are advantages to consistency, but I strongly believe that smaller groups within the larger whole should be allowed to differentiate themselves and operate according to their own rules, so long as those rules work.

Too many of our people—and to my mind, “too many” is the same as “any”—were self-censoring.

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.

Our actions change our reality. Our intentions matter. Most people believe that their actions have consequences but don’t think through the implications of that belief.

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.


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