Creativity, Inc.: A book review by Bob Morris

Creativity IncCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Edwin E. Catmull with Amy Wallace
Random House (2014)

How individuals as well as organizations can avoid or overcome blocks to creativity by managing the symbiotic relationship between art and commerce

In this book written with Amy Wallace, Ed Catmull reviews his brilliant career to date, meanwhile sharing his thoughts and feelings about a wealth of experiences from which he learned valuable lessons that he generously shares with his reader. He is most closely identified with Pixar. Why is it a unique human community?

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any other costume or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives me a definite sense of mission.”

Early on in his relationship with Pixar, Catmull set about to make one of his dreams come true: “It has always been my goal to create a culture at Pixar that will outlast its founding leaders — Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and me. But it is also my goal to share our underlying philosophies with other leaders and, frankly, with anyone who wrestles with the competing — but necessarily complementary — forces of art and commerce.”

Why specifically did Catmull write this book? “The thesis of this book is that there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process. In the coming pages, I will discuss many of the steps we follow at Pixar, but the most compelling mechanisms to me are those that deal with uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see. 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. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them…This book, then, is about the ongoing work of paying attention — of leading by being self-aware, as managers and as companies. It is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

These are among the hundreds of subjects and issues Catmull examines in this book that were and remain of greatest interest and value to me:

o Why creativity and innovation are most likely to thrive within the Pixar workplace culture
o Why Catmull and most (if not all) of the other Pixar employees “love to come to work each day”
o How to protect and nourish the creative process
o Defining characteristics shared by Pixar supervisors
o The most serious mistake Pixar has made, how they were corrected, and what was learned from them
o Those who have had the greatest impact on Catmull’s personal growth and personal development
o Catmull’s perspective on Steve Jobs’s evolving relationship with Pixar over the years
o Catmull’s evaluation of Jobs’s best and worst personal as well as professional attributes
o The importance of candor and especially of principled dissent at Pixar
o Perspectives on various Pixar films such as the Toy Story Trilogy (1995, 1999, and 2010) as well as A Bug’s Life (1998), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), Cars 2 (2011), and Brave (2012)
o Why Catmull is convinced that hindsight is NOT 20-20
o The “mechanisms” and tactics at Pixar that help to put “collective heads into a different frame of mind” to solve problems, answer questions, and in countless other ways think more creatively…together
o Catmull’s thoughts about self-imposed limits to be avoided or overcome
o The mental model that Catmull developed over time to help guide and direct his leadership and management judgment
o Pixar’s relationship with Disney Animation, for better or worse
o What Notes Day is and why it is so important to the Pixar culture

In the Afterword, Catmull provides recollections of “The Steve We Knew,” shared following his death by those who worked closely with him, notably John Lasseter who sat with Jobs for about an hour just before his death. I lack the talent to express in words the impact of these observations and reminiscences. I defer to Lasseter: “I looked at him and I realized this man had given me – given us – everything that we could ever want. I gave him a big hug. I kissed him on the cheek and for all of you” – Lasseter was crying now – “I said `Thank you. I love you Steve.'”

In the book’s final section, Starting Points, Ed Catmull shares principles that he holds most dear. Here is the last, one that serves as an appropriate conclusion to my modest commentary: “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.”

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