Although it's been out for nearly two years, I finally managed to read Creativity, Inc.—the first hand account of Ed Catmull, the genius behind Pixar, about his journey in building the company. While the book contains engaging stories behind some of the most commercially successful and entertaining animated films of all time, it's really a book about managing a fast-growing, innovation-driven, entrepreneurial, creative enterprise.
It's been in my Amazon wish list for some time, but I was inspired to finally read it because of a consulting engagement I'm currently working on that has me speaking to senior executives in film, broadcasting, advertising, design, and other "creative industries." In particular, I'm talking to them about what it takes to manage innovation in creativity-driven businesses, so I felt it was the perfect time to complement those conversations with this book.
It has been an interesting project for me because it's adding a lot of color to the pointy-headed economics and business academic literature I'm used to reading on this subject, which thankfully seems to be fairly consistent with, and has come in quite handy in guiding, those discussions. But, these stories are bringing economics and management concepts to life through tangible examples, and critically, fine-tuning them in useful ways for learning.
To me, Creativity, Inc. is a book that is all about that.
Rather than summarize the book for you, I’m going to take a different approach—skipping ahead to distill what I view are the critical lessons learned. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Company silos, stiff protocols, and rigid communication channels impede the flow of information in the firm, harming the creative enterprise;
- Candid feedback is critical in the workplace and was a difference maker for Pixar, which implemented a formal mechanism for this called Braintrust;
- Open communication can only occur in a trusting environment—without this, it will be impossible for people to give and receive criticism constructively;
- Good teams require getting good people—the right mix of talent, and the right mindset. This probably goes without saying in a knowledge-driven, creative enterprise, but it’s worth repeating—a good team is better than a good idea (I hear this repeatedly in the tech startup community);
- Leaders must create a culture where failure is not only acceptable, but promoted as a valuable opportunity for growth;
- The demands of business performance (revenues, profitability, efficiency) cannot be allowed to consume new ideas—infant ideas must be protected, and seen as a the future lifeblood of the company;
- Randomness is inevitable, and companies that account for the importance of flexibility and adaptability in their firms—and their employees—will better navigate the waters of change;
- What you don’t know can hurt you. Problems usually percolate up from the bottom—often managers are the last to know about them. In order to prevent leadership from being blindsided by these issues, companies must create an environment of trust between employees and managers;
- We all have personal mental models, and biases—a lack of ability or willingness to see beyond them can distort a person’s reality, harming the creative process and the enterprise; and
- Some beliefs and practices that helped Pixar navigate distorted reality from biases and inflexibility, included: (i) team problem-solving, (ii) team research trips, (iii) recognizing that nothing will ever be perfect, and appreciating scarcity, (iv) importance of marrying technology and art, (v) low-cost experimentation, and (vi) post-mortem discussions after the completion of a project, among others.
For those who want an alternative take on what is to be learned from this book, see The Pixar Way: 37 Quotes on Development and Maintaining a Creative Company.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT IT
This is a great story. I was primarily interested in the major lessons from the book, but found the story to be entertaining and engaging. This is an ideal environment for learning to take place. The book is filled with heavyweights of industry—George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Disney, Bob Iger—and creative endeavor—John Lasseter, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. That makes for interesting reading alone. But it’s also a good story about vision, ambition, talent, intuition, humility, and grace.
The book is well written. Catmull co-wrote the book with Amy Wallace, a journalist, and it’s hard not to notice that a real professional was involved here. A lot of big shots have ghost writers do their writing—and often, ideation—for them, but I think the writing here was particularly spot on.
It’s made me a better economist. I’ve said it before, but this book contains a wealth of information you would get in the economics of innovation and management literature, just presented through anecdotal story and the reflections of an obviously gifted man who has been able to straddle the holy trinity of innovative enterprise—technology, creativity, and management. Essentially, this book is a much more interesting and engaging version of all those lengthy academic papers and mathematical models I’ve subjected myself to over the years (and continue to do for very good reasons). It is also a reminder of the importance of the two—one helps us better understand our world; the other helps us embody those lessons, bringing wisdom to the masses. This book will make me better at my job because I spend most of my time engaging with non-economists—whether through writing or interpersonal interaction. Books like this improve me as a communicator—conveying complex topics to a general audience is vital to what I do. Story is the best vehicle for that.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
You will learn something; you will be entertained; you will be better at your job; you will appreciate the greatness of the people who revolutionized animated film; you will want to watch a Pixar movie, which one could argue, is something that brings people closer together. Who wouldn’t be interested in that? It's also a Sunday, what better have you got to do?