Tess standing with statues of Mike and Sully from Monsters University
Book report

Creative leadership, the Pixar way

I’m a huge fan of Pixar films, and six years ago, while heavily pregnant with my second son, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit their studio.

The campus is incredible; secluded and beautiful, with a good balance of small spaces to encourage focus, and large common areas to foster collaboration and relationship-building. There are sculptures that enshrine popular characters, lengthy galleries of concept artwork and models, and an exclusive merchandise store. Heaven!

So, when I came across the book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, it jumped out not only because of the striking silhouette of Buzz Lightyear on the cover, but also because of my personal love of Pixar films.

About the book

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, gives his unique perspective on creative leadership. Through the story of his own career of leading several creative companies, he talks about the workplace culture necessary to encourage and develop creativity.

Amy Wallace, an accomplished journalist, also has a writing credit, but since it’s unclear how much she contributed, my report will refer to Catmull as the author.

With Luxo Jr, ball, and baby bump at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.

My takeaways

Catmull calls out key takeaways throughout the book, succinctly outlining the main learnings from his career of creative leadership. At the same time, however, he cautions against simplifying and distilling these lessons too much. Too many repeatable adages, he says, and “you end up with something that is easy to say but not connected to behaviour.”

With that in mind, here are my main takeaways from the book, with a caveat that there is no substitute for reading the entire book to get the full meaning behind each of them:

1. Getting the right people, in the right combination, is more important than anything else

Catmull stresses again and again how crucial it is to hire the right people, and to involve those people in decision-making and problem-solving. Leaders can and should enthuse their people with a clear vision, and then give them autonomy to work towards that vision.

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

Not only should trust be built with the people you work with, but they should also be empowered to find and fix problems. In Toyota factory aseembly lines, anyone working on the line is empowered to pull the cord that stops the line, if they notice a problem. Catmull fostered the same culture at Pixar, with the philosophy that when smart people are able to identify and fix problems, the better and more creative the solutions will be.

2. Investing in ongoing learning has multiple benefits

I’m already a fan of learning new things to encourage creativity, so it was interesting to read that Catmull set up an educational program at Pixar. He describes Pixar University, which started with drawing classes for all employees.

It wasn’t that the company wanted people with non-artistic roles to be able to draw for work. Rather, there was an understanding that learning to draw would encourage the practice of mindfulness, and of keeping the brain nimble by learning something new. Also, the classes are an opportunity to interact with people in other departments, which may lead to valuable knowledge-sharing and team-building.

3. Candid feedback is an essential part of the iterative process

Catmull shares a lot about the processes of feedback and iteration Pixar teams go through when creating films.

One tactic is a “braintrust” group, where a group of the studio’s directors watch the latest version of a film in development, and then give honest and constructive feedback to the film’s director. This group is highly valued within the company, and there’s an understanding that having this safe space to speak your mind about the work is essential to creating quality output.

Another tactic Pixar used was “Notes Day.” This was a day where every employee spent the entire day brainstorming ideas for how to improve the company. There were organised workshops, talks, and many opportunities to give feedback to the executives.

These organised opportunies for candid feedback show how they trust their employees to notice problems, and to be invested in their solutions.

4. Measurement is important, but it’s not everything

One of the challenges of creative work is that it can’t always be measured. And if it can’t be measured, then it’s hard to quantitively evaluate its effectiveness. In my experience, this can lead to tension in the workplace between roles whose impact is easily quantifiable, and those whose impact may be harder to see.

Catmull gives us permission to relax on this:

“Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do.”

5. Failure should be embraced

Throughout the book, Catmull makes it clear that in creative work, failure is inevitable, and mistakes will always be made. The work of creative teams is therefore not to sidestep failure, or to tread so slowly and carefully that the risk of failure is eliminated completely. Instead, failure should be seen in a positive light, as something that fosters creativity and innovation.

He relates the process of movie development to forging steel; the story beats are solidified by “relentlessly testing them.” This process of finding the story of the film is inevtiably full of failure and missteps, but the idea is to enter the process not bracing for failure, but welcoming it.

When the culture of a creative workplace is based in fear, and averse to failure, people will avoid risk by repeating something safe that’s worked in the past. Fostering a positive understanding of failure will cause the opposite to happen: innovation.

And it’s important to get the majority of the failure out of the way early, when correcting the path is easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming. “Fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can” are two tenets Catmull shares from his team.

The job of the creative manager, then, is “not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.”

In closing

I really enjoyed Creativity, Inc., and I feel that it gave me some good tools to use in my own creative work and leadership. I particularly liked the storytelling style of the book, which sets up Catmull’s balance of humilty and expertise, and aligns with the value Pixar places on story.

Catmull was on the forefront of technical computer animation, and it was thrilling to read about those early days, including his experience of working at Lucasfilm and his close relationship with Steve Jobs. He deeply understands the delicate balance of creativity and technology that goes into producing truly excellent animated films.

And the results speak for themselves.

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