Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

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I really enjoyed reading this book! Not only did it have the insight into how a successful entrepreneur created his empire, but it is a story of how a pioneer gave birth to an entirely new industry. To add to the storyline you’ll get a behind the scenes look into the making of some of the classic pixar movies like “Up”; interactions with the late, great Steve Jobs; a look into a merger with one of the largest culture-driven companies in history, Disney; sprinkled in with nerdy facts like who invented anti-aliasing and where the name Pixar came from. It wasn’t like many business books out there, but, then again, I wouldn’t expect less from a book written by Ed Catmull with the word “creativity” in the title.

One thing I am skeptical about is how his glowing positive outlook on all the events and outcomes that transpired actually trickled down emotionally to the average employee. Having been on both sides of the founder/employee persona I  know it is easy to relishes your triumphs while realistically most people don’t care as much as you think. At times the book sounds a bit “let them eat cake” esque. That being said, I don’t think it takes away from the stories and points he makes. After all, he did create a billion dollar company, a trillion dollar industry and many award winning films along the way – so I still think his advice is sound 😉

Based on the above you may think I would say he lacked humility in the book, that’s not quite what I am saying. One thing I enjoyed immensely is how upfront he was about where things went wrong and how he pushed his ideal of creating a candid work environment. I just wonder how everyone else responded to the ideals in the day-to-day.

Throughout the book Ed does a great job giving the reader what they are ultimately looking for: tips. He summarizes many of his stories as concise lessons and at the end of the book he literally creates a list of overarching tips he believes are important. What can I say, the man knows how to tell a story. Definitely a must read.

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Some of my Kindle Highlights, with notes, from the book:

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).

This is a common thought, but how he frames it as a “consequence of doing something new” was especially attractive to me.

“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,”

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

Is the question being asked: Whose fault was this? If so, your culture is one that vilifies failure. Failure is difficult enough without it being compounded by the search for a scapegoat.

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

A nice way to tweeze out the root causes that lead to a lack of innovation (on this case creativity.) A culture that grows into creating repeats and derivatives to avoid risk. Overtime, it can becomes so hidden within a culture that no one can see it. This concept comes up again when he describes the merger with Disney.

it’s easier to plan derivative work—

overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed).

I found a life lesson here. I am a major advocate when it comes to product development to recognize that almost no plans can be too long term since variables constantly change along the way; my playbook is often to iterate with a big picture vision. For some reason, in life outside of work, I tend to overplan a lot. And, get upset when all the work that went into planning goes awry. Until I read this passage I never viewed them side by side. For me it was eye opening.

It was as if we’d picked four talented musicians, left them to their own devices, and hoped like hell they’d figure out how to be the Beatles.

Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness

I have found some companies want it all. They want new, greatness, speed, and growth all at once. In that way they use one rule for all situations and inevitably lose the ability to grow and be creative. In their mind they are iterating away from problems – in actuality they are killing the seeds of a truly iterable future.

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.

Love that. Definitely a first principles thought that I try to remind myself of all the time. Take a step back, what is the true root problem you are solving. Then regroup.

When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas—our ugly babies—aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature.

Each group, then, is trying to do the right thing, but they’re pulling in different directions. If any one of those groups “wins,” we lose.

Ed makes a great case for making sure you have an environment in which many cultures can exists, but they must have the same ideals and mindset. The importance of conflict in perspective is in how it can spawn new and creative ideas.

In an unhealthy culture, each group believes that if their objectives trump the goals of the other groups, the company will be better off. 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.

It is management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy—as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run. I’m

if history is any guide, some are diligently trying to polish a brick.

It wasn’t just that the interns lightened the workload by taking on projects. Teaching them Pixar’s ways made our people examine how they did things, which led to improvements for all.

The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.

Which meant that the people working on Up had to be able to roll with that evolution without panicking, shutting down, or growing discouraged. It helped that Pete understood what they were feeling.

“It wasn’t until I finished directing Monsters, Inc. that I realized failure is a healthy part of the process,” he told me. “Throughout the making of that film, I took it personally—I believed my mistakes were personal shortcomings, and if I were only a better director I wouldn’t make them.” To this day, he says, “I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong.

It also helped that Pete never lost sight of his mission on Up, which was to drill down to the emotional core of his characters and then build the story around that.

“I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And, by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you start.

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. Steve Jobs was known for changing his mind instantly in the light of new facts, and I don’t know anyone who thought he was weak.

This was an interesting bit of insight. I have personally seen people change their mind at work and to many (often including myself) it called in to question our ability to trust their judgement. With this section I took a different tune. If you can’t change your mind you can’t make those important mistakes and learnings. With those I was particularly close to we changed one another’s minds all the time – and I actually enjoyed the feelings and perspectives it gave me. So, how do you create a trusting culture where anyone can make claims and change their mind without consequence? Something to think about.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” For many, these are words to live by.

To be clear, I am not endorsing change for change’s sake. There are often good reasons to hang on to things that work. The wrong kind of change can endanger our projects, which is why those who oppose it are in earnest when they say that they just want to protect the companies in which they work.

When companies are successful, it is natural to assume that this is a result of leaders making shrewd decisions. Those leaders go forward believing that they have figured out the key to building a thriving company. In fact, randomness and luck played a key role in that success.

After the loss of the film, our list of priorities, in order, were: (1) Restore the film; (2) Fix our …. Notably, one item was not on our list: Find the person responsible who typed the wrong command and punish him or her. Some people may question that decision, reasoning that as valuable as creating a trusting environment can be, responsibility without accountability can undermine an expectation of excellence. I’m all for accountability. But in this case, my reasoning went like this: Our people have good intentions. To think you can control or prevent random problems by making an example of someone is naïve and wrongheaded. Moreover, if you say it is important to let the people you work with solve their own problems, then you must behave like you mean it. Drill down, certainly, to make sure everyone understands how important it is that we strive to avoid such problems in the future. But always—always—walk your talk.

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

. If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse

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.” The cat’s hindsight, in other words, distorts her view. The past should be our teacher, not our master.

I especially like the summary, “The past should be our teacher, not our master.” It eloquently puts the conflict between when we change from our past and when we don’t. There isn’t one answer, and that summary says it all.

An adage worth repeating is also halfway to being irrelevant.

Ed often dives into how much he is afraid of creating “rules of thumb.” He is afraid that with every repetition the meaning and reasoning is slightly lost and eventually it gets misused or becomes a crutch. He touches on a huge philosophical perspective here that I find relates to life as a whole. The fear of dogma. This reminds me of my  a but of my favorite philosopher Nietzsche  that speak of the same avoidances.

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.

Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them even when they do screw up.

I like the way he frames it. In essence you trust that they likely screwed up for understandable reasons. Or, in other words, they would not have screwed up had it not be for a good reason.

Protect the future, not the past.

Balance is more important than stability.

Stability is an illusion after all 😉

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