Creativity, Inc

I have a weird way of sabotaging for myself when reading. Somewhere in my adult years, I got this idea that I had to have the perfect circumstances for reading quality books.

Meaning I can’t read when I’m tired, or stressed, or when I only have a few minutes on my hands. “I won’t be able to understand and remember”, I thought to myself.

I don’t know where I picked up this stupid habit but has done zero good for me, so I decided, fuck it, I’m gonna read whenever, wherever, as Shakira would say. (How’s that for a super old reference?)

Creativity, Inc

One of the books I’ve been putting off with that excuse is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

Ed Catmull is currently in my top five people I would love to meet. I think we (meaning mostly and probably only me) would have a lot of fun nerding out about management and how to build an environment that people are this excited to go to. His approach to building Pixar aligns very much with how I dream of running a company. Thinking long-term, putting people first, try new things while always contemplating and evaluating the result.

Since my company currently consist of one person (hello 🙋🏻‍♀️) I can't test these theories in full, but in my project manager role I can definitely draw inspiration from it. Here are few nuggets I’m taking with me from this book.

This should be a goal of every leadership role.

My aim at Pixar—and at Disney Animation, which my longtime partner John Lasseter and I have also led since the Walt Disney Company acquired Pixar in 2006—has been to enable our people to do their best work.

People are everything

[…] 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. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. There is an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet—in my experience—is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

So important, and so commonly overlooked.

A catchy mantra can do more damage than good

Parroting the phrase “Story Is King” at Pixar didn’t help the inexperienced directors on Toy Story 2 one bit. What I’m saying is that this guiding principle, while simply stated and easily repeated, didn’t protect us from things going wrong. In fact, it gave us false assurance that things would be okay.
People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.

Fail and fail fast

Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one.

Everyone (at least in my internet neighborhoods) subscribes to the “fail fast” principle. So do I. But it's one thing to know the theory, acting accordingly is a whole different cookie.

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail. As Andrew puts it, “Moving things forward allows the team you are leading to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m on a boat that is actually going towards land.’ As opposed to having a leader who says, ‘I’m still not sure. I’m going to look at the map a little bit more, and we’re just going to float here, and all of you stop rowing until I figure this out.’ And then weeks go by, and morale plummets, and failure becomes self-fulfilling. People begin to treat the captain with doubt and trepidation.

I love this way of explaining it.

The principle I’m describing here—iterative trial and error—has long-recognized value in science. When scientists have a question, they construct hypotheses, test them, analyze them, and draw conclusions—and then they do it all over again. The reasoning behind this is simple: Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.


Wording matters (in case you didn’t know)

“Sometimes in meetings, I sense people seizing up, not wanting to even talk about changes,” he says. “So I try to trick them. I’ll say, ‘This would be a big change if we were really going to do it, but just as a thought exercise, what if ...’ Or, ‘I’m not actually suggesting this, but go with me for a minute ...’ If people anticipate the production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas—so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change.”

A small change in phrasing can make a huge difference.

It’s not all simple

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.

Excellence over structure

By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. 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’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.”

An easy trap to fall into. Focusing all your energy on a magical solution of structure that will solve all problems, effectively draining the creativity out of everyone and in the end not solving anything. It's also difficult to argue with - it always sounds good. "This will make working easier for everyone and let us focus on creating", but in reality, we're just chasing a utopia.

Note to self (and everyone I know)

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

Include people in your problems

“People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you’ve effed up,” as Andrew says. “It’s a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions.”
Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.

Read if ...

I have about seventy more highlights from the book, and I will make a habit of coming back to them on a regular basis. Definitely worth reading if you're working in a management role or are just the teeny tiniest bit interested in company culture.