Book Review – Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull


Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and many more great movies have Ed Catmull behind them. Not as the creative genius, but as the manager of the creative and technical forces in Pixar who made them. Creativity Inc, is a good mix of historical and biographical narrative on the development of Pixar, with the management insights and leadership lessons that were learned along the way.

Producing what we do in business, whether it is a professional service, or a physical product, is a result of the effective management of either a team or the self. I read this book in the context of managing our small team. What we do is creative and yet technical in nature. We balance both in providing solutions to the needs of our customers who have placed their important marketing platform development to us.

  1. The Importance of your team & culture

One of the key points in the boom for me is allowing members of a team to have the freedom to share ideas and information, to empower them to build strong relationships, which in turn contributes to the development of technical and creative innovations within the company. This requires also the freedom to identify problems and call them out, to suggest improvements (and do what is necessary to implement them), and to be responsible for creating as well as problem solving. Communication is key here to developing a sustainable creative and innovative culture.

  1. The importance of your story

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

This is a powerful message in the book, the “story is king”. I think of our story as our product, and of our product as being a contributor to the business successes of our clients. So getting that right is essential. Part of getting our story right is having the right characters to deliver it. Catmull places a lot of emphasis on building the right team, one that focusses on the story and is compelled to do so because of the trust placed in them, the freedom allowed to them, and the relationships that are built that form a clarity of purpose toward delivering quality.

Catmull evokes former Pixar majority shareholder Steve Jobs as he returns to the importance of the story over process. The goal should be to make something great, not to focus on the process. I like the idea raised of performing post-mortems once a project is completed. This allows us to look at lessons learned, and sharing them around the team, celebrating and congratulating successes, and putting in place improvements into future work-flows.

  1. Embracing Fear and Failure

Catmull encourages us to think about failure differently, and what is now regular “start-up” jargon in the current era, to fail early and fail fast. The adage that we “learn from our mistakes” is often overlooked in the search for perfection. Our disappointment clouds it when it occurs, but Catmull tells us that mistakes aren’t evil, they are inevitable in doing something new, and for us in this business, each project is something new. We should talk freely about mistakes and create the environment that makes it safe for our people to fail. This allows failures to become future assets and a culture in which people can be fearless in their approach to excellence, and to explore new ideas. The message is to share our own mistakes, and allow others to make them and trust they will share, recover, and learn from them as well.

He looks at change and randomness, in a similar way, in that each should be approached with flexibility. The realisation that change and randomness is inherent in creativity provides the opportunity to develop, improve, and innovate. Today, with the pace of change and disruption, it is more important than ever.

The book ends with observations of what occurred with the merger between Pixar & Disney which is an interesting look at cultures coming together and taking the best from each.  Although one of the reasons for the merger was to take what was working at Pixar and have it transfuse into Disney, it was never going to be easy, but the compelling drive to stay true to the story became the core of the successes to follow.

There is a great appendix of salient points which provide for quick and thought provoking consumption, a great resource of recounting to keep one focussed, I am sure I will revisit these regularly in my business life. I want to close with the last of these: “Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.”

With everything we do, we are going to ask with more conviction: Is it excellent? Is it great? Regardless of the answer, I want to us as a team to understand what happened in the process. We need to understand what was our experience, the experience of our clients, what can be learned, and what can be implemented into the next project to achieve the goal for us and for our clients.

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