Creativity Inc. outlines the business decisions made by Pixar and Disney to achieve world domination within the creative industry. As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream. His dream was to create the first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start. Then, he forged a partnership with George Lucas. Plus, founded Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. The rest is history. Pixar sold for over seven billion dollars and Pixar movies changed the 3D animation sector. This book provides guidance on the creative management techniques adopted by Ed Catmull and Pixar to help elevate his team to the top.
About Ed Catmull
Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He has been honored with five Academy Awards, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of computer graphics. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah. In 2013, the Computer History Museum named him a Museum Fellow for his pioneering work in computer graphics, animation and filmmaking.
Hierarchies Prevent Honest Employee Feedback
There is a common fear among employees surrounding challenging the ideas of superiors. Despite this, Ed Catmull explains this fearful approach can significantly stunt a business’ growth. If the issue sits within your remit, then you are the perfect person to identify problems that need fixing. Hence, if you are not willing to identify and outline problems, then these problems will remain unfixed.
An effective way of encouraging people to challenge ideas and identify problems is to establish feedback systems. These systems will allow information to be shared freely and openly between hierarchies. Pixar’s example of this type of system was their Notes Day in 2013. On this day, the entire company halted operations. Instead of working as usual, every staff member spent their day working in teams to provide company feedback. This one day helped build a culture where employees felt free to engage in an open dialogue. Problems were shared, and solutions were offered and implemented into their company plans.
Feedback Relies on Ownership
Feedback from staff members is crucial. However, feedback can be either unproductive or productive. One way to increase the likelihood of your staff members’ feedback being productive is to encourage them to take ownership of their work. Ed Catmull offers a historic example of ownership encouraging effective feedback. In the 1940s, Japanese companies gave all workers the ability to stop the factory assembly line. This decision provided all employees with the ability to identify problems. As the employees were the ones to spot the problem, they then felt more ownership over solving the problem. Hence, the factories were able to improve productivity by employees identifying and fixing problems without managerial input.
It is the management’s job to ensure that they value workers’ feedback. Workers should perceive that voicing their opinions has an impact on the management’s decision-making. It is a terrible idea to ignore feedback or tell workers off for pointing out areas of improvement. Ed Catmull explains how he ensured his employees at Pixar felt valued. Specifically, he visited every employee individually to gain their insights. These individual meetings made his workers more confident in voicing their opinions. Plus, these experiences were helpful for Ed in understanding the current system.
Fear of Failure Prevents Innovation
“Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”– Ed Catmull
Humans are naturally reluctant to change. Subsequently, most people are skeptical of new technologies and will show a preference for traditional technologies despite improvements in efficiency. Ed Catmull explains that our fear of change relates to our fear of making mistakes. Naturally, we believe that new technologies will lead to more mistakes. Although this is true, these mistakes do not need to be associated with failure. Catmull suggests leaders ensure their employees are not burdened by a fear of failure. Highlighting the inevitability of mistakes will give employees the confidence to try new things without worrying about the likely mistakes that will follow.
Fear of failure can also prevent a company from taking the risks required to encourage significant growth. Instead, companies can become obsessed with controlling the future. This control leads to companies following a safe route and developing rigid plans. The issues associated with these rigid plans will become clear when the uncertainty of the future arises. Plus, these plans also mean the company could miss out on unexpected opportunities.
Ed Catmull provides another example of how these limitations were evident within Pixar and Disney. The head of HR at Disney once came to Catmull with a detailed, two-year plan that included all their goals. Catmull knew this carefully crafted plan was a mistake. It is crucial that businesses have a goal to work towards, but these goals should not constrain the employees. Catmull refused to agree to the plan, so that he and his colleagues could maintain flexibility.
Leaders Must Appreciate Their Weaknesses
“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”– Ed Catmull
Humans have a bias towards information that confirms their opinions. Worryingly, this bias leaves you blind to the potential alternatives. In Creativity Inc., Catmull outlines that the psychologist Peter Wason was the first to speak about this effect in the 1960s. Wason described this type of bias as confirmation bias.
One way to prevent confirmation bias from taking over your decisions is to accept that others might have better ideas than you. This is critical for leaders, who often have the final say. Catmull provides an example of a meeting he remembers from his time at Pixar. During this meeting, an employee made a suggestion that was not in agreement with the management’s general approach. The management’s general approach was to have their animators work throughout the entire production process. This employee suggested that Pixar started moving the animation work towards the end of production. In doing so, the animators would have all the information they needed right from the start. Rather than wasting time on revisions, the animators could produce an end-product far quicker. In this instance, the management team was willing to accept that somebody else might have a better idea than they were currently implementing. Subsequently, Pixar was able to significantly reduce the hours worked per person.
Employee Contribution Drives Employee Motivation
Employees are more likely to work hard if they believe they are contributing towards a greater goal. You do not have to create goals that are highly specific. Instead, you can create abstract goals that are still something to strive towards. For example, encouraging your employees to pursue excellence. A passion for the pursuit of excellence was a key feature of Pixar. Catmull explains that the founders benefited greatly from having a work culture that pursued excellence.
Several challenges cropped up during the production of Toy Story 2 that could have ultimately led to the film being a failure. The film would have been a failure without employee motivation. Every employee has the shared goal of achieving excellence. Hence, they worked long hours seven days a week to solve the problems and create a successful film. The outcome was a film that grossed over 500 million dollars at the box office.
People Are More Important Than Ideas
“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.”– Ed Catmull
The business world seems to believe that success stems from groundbreaking ideas. Ideas are important, but hiring the right people to make these ideas a reality is more important. Even with the best idea in the world, you will not succeed unless you also have the right team. Catmull makes the point that the greatest innovations, like the iPhone or Michelin star recipes, are the result of collaborative efforts. Effectively sharing ideas and working towards a common goal is what makes a company successful.
Another point made by Catmull is that building your business team is not about hiring the most talented people. You do want talented individuals, but they also need to work well together. You want your business to be more effective than the sum of its parts. Additionally, you should build teams that are highly diverse. If you fill your teams with like-minded people, then your ideas will not be challenged. Greater diversity encourages challenging ideas and pivoting approaches.
Catmull benefited firsthand from a diverse workforce when he attended the University of Utah in the 1960s. Catmull was included in a team of highly diverse graduate students given the freedom to do whatever they wanted on the facility’s computers. The result was a highly productive and inspirational atmosphere. Subsequently, students were so motivated they would work together late into the night. Several of the students within this team became huge successes, and they created a product that became the predecessor to the internet.
Trust Empowers Your Employees
Managers who micromanage their employees will stunt the efficiency and motivation of employees. Limiting employees’ independence will hamper their creativity and morale. Hence, Catmull suggests you trust your employees to make decisions on their own. If you have hired correctly, your employees will be experts in what they do. They are the best positioned individuals to make decisions to solve problems. If you do not trust your employees to do their work, then there is no point hiring them in the first place.
Again, Catmull explains Pixar benefited from trust. Pixar had a group of long-term employees and film production experts called Braintrust. The director could call upon these individuals if they needed some direction. However, the guidance provided by this group was not mandatory. Instead, the director was told they could make whatever decisions they wanted. This allowed Pixar’s directors to creatively flourish.
Instilling trust is crucial, but your staff need to be proficient enough to be trusted. Therefore, make sure you are hiring people who are both intelligent and possess sufficient expertise. This combination will mean they can effectively solve problems as they arise. Based on the importance of these attributes, Catmull only hires people he feels surpass his own intelligence. Plus, he encourages you to hire individuals who are intelligent and talented enough to do your own job. This is often avoided due to fear of them stealing your job. However, the most important factor is the team’s results.
Do Not Avoid Risk and Failure
Some businesses are unlucky and will experience more failure than others. However, these businesses can have control over the outcomes of failures. Catmull recommends incorporating recovery techniques into your business plan. As failure is inevitable, this approach aims to limit the repercussions of failure. For Pixar, their iterative processes provided them with their recovery. Through iteration, Pixar accepted mistakes and tried to remove these mistakes project-by-project. Pixar gave their employees more time for exploration and correction during the development phase of filmmaking. This minimized the negative effects of these inevitable mistakes. Plus, allowed the mistakes to arise and be solved earlier in the process. Subsequently, large amounts of money can be saved.
One important approach to ensure that mistakes are accepted is by removing single responsibility. You should not place blame on one individual and force them to fix it. Instead, ensure that mistakes are considered a collective failure. If you can implement this, then everybody in the team will be motivated to overcome the problem.
Working Environments are Crucial
Designing the Work Environment
The architecture and interior design of your company’s workspace should inspire creativity, not boredom. Minor changes to a working environment can make a substantial difference. Introducing a new and exciting table or a statement plant can instantly lift the mood of your team.
Catmull explains that Pixar initially got their environmental design all wrong. They would hold their meetings at a long, rectangular table. Place cards were on each seat, so that individuals would sit in the same space. This encouraged feelings of formality and hierarchy. Essentially, they were stunting creativity and marginalizing the people placed on the edges of the table. Subsequently, they decided to replace the table with a brand new square one without place cards. Immediately, the team became more creative and a wider variety of people were voicing their opinions.
Individuality should also be encouraged within work environments. Allow your employees to add personal touches to their workspaces. At Pixar, workers have complete control over their workspace. They can decorate the workspace however they want, no matter how elaborate. To complement this, Pixar employees did not have to follow the same rigid routines daily. This is another tool that encourages creativity. For example, Pixar’s technology developers and engineers were given two days monthly to pursue personal projects. They were allowed to go into Pixar’s Tools Department and use all the available technology to work on any project or problem they found fascinating.
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