Excerpts from “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull

Who doesn't love the lamp?

Note: Book links in this post are affiliate links, but I was not provided a copy of this book in any way. I picked it up on my own accord and then I couldn’t put it down.

I am very tempted to launch this post as titled “Trick’s Notes” but I have a feeling that could come back and bite me in the ass later on. Instead I will simply offer these up as a rather long collection of quotes and excerpts from Ed Catmull’s excellent book “Creativity, Inc.” which discusses his time founding Pixar alongside Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, as well as the acquisition and process of taking over Disney’s animation studios. Overall I found it a very enjoyable read and learned a great deal from it, below are the excerpts I highlighted in my E-reader as a possible useful reference for others.

While the book is told using Pixar and its movies as its topics, the book is truly a book about management and being a manager. Ed Catmull did not set out to be a manager, he wanted to make the world’s first computer animated movie and along the way found himself at the head of one of the world’s most creative businesses and needing to understand how to keep that company successful as it expanded and learned some hard lessons along the way.

Most of what I’ve highlighted is to that topic, but some aren’t. Some are just phrases I liked, or interesting ideas. And towards the end it is a point or two about Steve Jobs which were interesting.

Enjoy!

When faced with a challenge, get smarter.

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

Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas—they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who’d be charged with employing them

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

I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.

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.

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

It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.

Ask anyone, “Should people be honest?” and of course their answer will be yes. It has to be! Saying no is to endorse dishonesty, which is like coming out against literacy or childhood nutrition—it sounds like a moral transgression. But the fact is, there are often good reasons not to be honest. When it comes to interacting with other people in a work environment, there are times when we choose not to say what we really think.

One way to do that is to replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor.

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

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

Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, says he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others.

“A lot of us in this room have not grown up—and I mean that in the best way,” he said. “The conundrum is how to become mature, how to take on responsibility and become reliable while at the same time preserving your childlike wonder. People have come up to me many times, as I’m sure has happened to many people in this room, and said, ‘Gee, I wish I could be creative like you. That would be something, to be able to draw.’ But I believe that everyone begins with the ability to draw. Kids are instinctively there. But a lot of them unlearn it. Or people tell them they can’t or it’s impractical. So yes, kids have to grow up, but maybe there’s a way to suggest that they could be better off if they held onto some of their childish ideas.

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love.

In my experience, people usually don’t intend to be evasive, and a gentle nudge is all it takes to put them back on the right path.

Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves

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. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. 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).

The fact that failing could earn you a very public flogging distorted the way researchers chose projects. The politics of failure, then, impeded our progress.

When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work—even when it is confounding them.

But any failure at a creative company is a failure of many, not one

As managers, we all start off with a certain amount of trepidation. When we are new to the position, we imagine what the job is in order to get our arms around it, then we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we “should” be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well.

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.
I see this over and over again in other companies: A subversion takes place in which streamlining the process or increasing production supplants the ultimate goal, with each person or group thinking they’re doing the right thing—when, in fact, they have strayed off course.

While the idea of balance always sounds good, it doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of what it means to actually achieve balance. Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness—the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments

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

I was struck that there seemed to be two kinds of reviewers: some who would look for flaws in the papers, and then pounce to kill them; and others who started from a place of seeking and promoting good ideas. When the “idea protectors” saw flaws, they pointed them out gently, in the spirit of improving the paper—not eviscerating it. Interestingly, the “paper killers” were not aware that they were serving some other agenda (which was often, in my estimation, to show their colleagues how high their standards were). Both groups thought they were protecting the proceedings, but only one group understood that by looking for something new and surprising, they were offering the most valuable kind of protection.

“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. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”

Unlike some theoretical ideas, Occam’s Razor accords easily with human nature. In general, we seek what we think are simple explanations for events in our lives because we believe the simpler something is, the more fundamental—the more true—it is. But when it comes to randomness, our desire for simplicity can mislead us. Not everything is simple, and to try to force it to be is to misrepresent reality.

If all our careful planning cannot prevent problems, then our best method of response is to enable employees at every level to own the problems and have the confidence to fix them.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. Steve Jobs was quite aware of this story and used to repeat it to people at Apple, adding that he never wanted people to ask, “What would Steve do?” No one—not Walt, not Steve, not the people of Pixar—ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work.

it behooves us to ask ourselves constantly: How much are we able to see? And how much is obscured from view? Is there a Cassandra out there we are failing to listen to?

Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order.

The problem is, the phrase is dead wrong. Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future

The past should be our teacher, not our master.

We’ve all experienced times when other people see the same event we see but remember it differently. (Typically, we think our view is the correct one.) The differences arise because of the ways our separate mental models shape what we see. I’ll say it again: Our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather. But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.

In business, where dozens if not hundreds of people may work in close proximity, that effect multiplies quickly, and before you know it, these competing and often at-odds models lead to a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change or respond well to challenges. The intertwining of many views is an unavoidable part of any culture, and unless you are careful, the conflicts that arise can keep groups of people locked into their restrictive viewpoints even if, as is often the case, each member of the group is ordinarily open to better ideas.

Even though copying what’s come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe—to succeed with minimal risk—can infect not just individuals but also entire companies.

During the making of The Incredibles, he became distracted by what he calls “mirages”—scenes or ideas he fell in love with but that, ultimately, didn’t serve the film. As an example, for a long time he was obsessed with a vision of some fish in an aquarium that would appear in the background of a scene. He wanted them to move and flicker in a way that evoked flames in a fireplace—he was fixated, in fact, on realizing the vision in his head. But the film’s animators were really struggling to make it look right, and after five months—and thousands of hours of work—Brad suddenly realized it didn’t improve the movie in any real way. A mirage had led him astray.

The solution we implemented may have been obvious, but here’s something that wasn’t: It could never have come from the people in the oversight group, because that would have required them to recognize and admit that their group’s existence was unnecessary. They were not in a position to challenge the preconception that their group was based on

The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: How do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they asked: How do we prevent our people from screwing up? That approach never encourages a creative response.

Better to have train wrecks with miniature trains than with real ones

It isn’t just postmortems, though: In general, people are resistant to self-assessment. Companies are bad at it, too. Looking inward, to them, often boils down to this: “We are successful, so what we are doing must be correct.” Or the converse: “We failed, so what we did was wrong.” This is shallow. Do not be cowed into missing this opportunity. There are five reasons, I believe, to do postmortems. The first two are fairly obvious, the next three less so.

Consolidate What’s Been Learned
While it is true that you learn the most in the midst of a project, the lessons are not generally coherent. Any individual can have a great insight but may not have the time to pass it on. A process might be flawed, but you don’t have time to fix it under the current schedule. Sitting down afterward is a way of consolidating all that you’ve learned—before you forget it. Postmortems are a rare opportunity to do analysis that simply wasn’t possible in the heat of the project.

Teach Others Who Weren’t There
Even if everyone involved in a production understands what it taught them, the postmortem is a great way of passing on the positive and negative lessons to other people who were not on the project. So much of what we do is not obvious—the result of hard-won experience. Then again, some of what we do doesn’t really make sense. The postmortem provides a forum for others to learn or challenge the logic behind certain decisions.

Don’t Let Resentments Fester
Many things that go wrong are caused by misunderstandings or screw-ups. These lead to resentments that, if left unaddressed, can fester for years. But if people are given a forum in which to express their frustrations about the screw-ups in a respectful manner, then they are better able to let them go and move on. I have seen many cases where hurt feelings lingered far after the project, feelings that would have been worked through much more easily if they had been expressed in a postmortem.

Use the Schedule to Force Reflection
I favor principles that lead you to think. Postmortems—but also other activities such as Braintrust meetings and dailies—are all about getting people to think and evaluate. The time we spend getting ready for a postmortem meeting is as valuable as the meeting itself. In other words, the scheduling of a postmortem forces self-reflection. If a postmortem is a chance to struggle openly with our problems, the “pre-postmortem” sets the stage for a successful struggle. I would even say that 90 percent of the value is derived from the preparation leading up to the postmortem.

Pay It Forward
In a postmortem, you can raise questions that should be asked on the next project. A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward. We shouldn’t expect to find the right answers, but if we can get people to frame the right questions, then we’ll be ahead of the game

One technique I’ve used to soften the process is to ask everyone in the room to make two lists: the top five things that they would do again and the top five things that they wouldn’t do again. People find it easier to be candid if they balance the negative with the positive, and a good facilitator can make it easier for that balance to be struck.

Andrew likens the director’s job to that of a ship captain, out in the middle of the ocean, with a crew that’s depending on him to make land. The director’s job is to say, “Land is that way.” Maybe land actually is that way and maybe it isn’t, but Andrew says that if you don’t have somebody choosing a course—pointing their finger toward that spot there, on the horizon—then the ship goes nowhere. It’s not a tragedy if the leader changes her mind later and says, “Okay, it’s actually not that way, it’s this way. I was wrong.” As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.

One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live.

If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes

Similarly, within organizations groups often hold so tightly to plans and past practices that they are not open to seeing what is changing in front of them.

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

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

We had learned long ago that while everyone appreciates cash bonuses, they value something else almost as much: being looked in the eye by someone they respect and told, “Thank you.” At Pixar, we’d devised a way to give our employees money and gratitude

There is nothing like a crisis, though, to bring what ails a company to the surface

Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: “How do we tap the brainpower of our people?”

A character animator lamented that he didn’t know more about what people in other departments, like lighting and shading, did. “It makes it easy to vilify and resent each other,” he said.

Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind. He didn’t hold on to an idea because he had once believed it to be brilliant. His ego didn’t attach to the suggestions he made, even as he threw his full weight behind them

If you enjoyed the above excerpts out of context then imagine how much you will enjoy them in context! Go buy this awesome book from Amazon! Reminder, the links to the book in this post are affiliate links for me.

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