Elements of Originality

How do we build and protect a culture of creativity in a corporate setting? What elements are necessary to this culture? Why do successful companies make bad decisions? Once established, how do we protect this culture of creativity from the inevitable conservatism brought about by success? These are just a few of the questions Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, addresses in his book, Creativity Inc.: overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration (with Amy Wallace, Random House, New York, 2014).

Creativity Inc. is part autobiography, partly a biography of Steve Jobs, and mostly a dissertation on management in a creative setting. Catmull masterfully weaves personal stories, anecdotes, quotes from colleagues, and thoughts on management into an easily accessible yet profound read for anyone seeking a balance between the forces of art and commerce. Balance is approached throughout the book.

While the idea of balance always sounds good, it doesn’t capture the dynamic nature of what it means to actually achieve balance. Our mental image of balance is somewhat distorted because we tend to equate it with stillness – the calm repose of a yogi balancing on one leg, a state without apparent motion. To my mind, the more accurate examples of balance come from sports, such as when a basketball player spins around a defender, a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage, or a surfer catches a wave. All of these are extremely dynamic responses to rapidly changing environments.

Here, Catmull presents a picture of balance as a dynamic, constantly changing force. He advocates trading rigid control for a more fluid sense of guidance. He devotes an entire chapter to balancing the needs of the “Ugly Babies” (new projects) and “The Beast” (the systems and overhead accumulated by a successful company and necessary to continued success). “The Beast” must be fed more work to stay alive, but turning over new ideas (films) to the Beast (production team) too early results in an ill-formed, mediocre product. At that point, the project becomes an expensive rewrite.

Catmull consistently refers to the balance of leadership at Pixar between John Lasseter (art), Steve Jobs (business), and himself (technology) and the ways these people and principles intertwine and augment one another, often blurring the lines and dipping into one another’s areas of expertise. He quotes John Lasseter, “Art challenges technology, technology inspires art.”

Catmull states in the introduction, “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 creating the culture at Pixar, Catmull and his colleagues focused on three principles – self awareness, candor, and fearlessness. If creative collaboration relies on trust, this trust is built through honest, selfless communication. There is an enormous amount of risk involved with making something new, so there is naturally a lot of fear. Catmull claims we must change our approach to failure so as to defang fear.

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

This idea of seeking the new, innovating, creating original work pervades the book. Catmull recognizes that it is very easy, especially in film, to become derivative. He shares a story of a team working on a film with giant corkboards filled with still frames from other films these filmmakers loved. These filmmakers shared their ideas with one another in the language of other films. Because of this well-intended but misguided notion, all their work on the new film felt derivative, hackneyed, old-hat. He also provides an antidote, a way to foster innovation through research trips. Filmmakers at Pixar travelled to world class restaurants in Paris while working on Ratatouille and travelled to Ivy League campuses while working on Monsters University. They were able to draw inspiration and detail from life rather than copying other work in their medium (film). These research trips lend freshness and integrity to Pixar’s films.

“Candor is forthrightness or frankness… the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve.” Catmull claims candor, honesty without regard for ego, a selfless problem-solving method, is necessary to a healthy collaborative process.

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.

At Pixar, a group of trusted colleagues called the Braintrust serves as an advisory board to the directors of each film. In Braintrust meetings, individuals attack problems ruthlessly. This is possible because everyone leaves their ego at the door. All involved recognize they are there to create great films and to remove obstacles to success. The solutions proposed by the Braintrust are not always used – they are not mandatory, but other solutions are found. The Braintrust’s strength is diagnosing problems in films. It brings fresh perspectives and new eyes to a project throughout the creative process. This serves as a check on wasted resources due to pursuing a bad idea and a spur toward innovation. These meetings keep everyone involved on their toes, ready to actively tackle problems together. And action is an antidote to fear.

Catmull approaches mistakes as learning opportunities. “I came to think of our meltdowns as a necessary part of doing our business, like investments in R&D, and I urged everyone at Pixar to see them the same way.” This approach takes much of the fear out of failure.

Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people… He’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes – without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes.

 

This approach to failure is an empowering one. Rather than forcing people into inaction through fear of failure, it enables people to act, to try new things with a fierce curiosity and courage, safe in the knowledge that they can try again if needed.

Self awareness means knowing and acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses. It leads to humility and constant self improvement. Self aware people are easy to work with and promote collaboration. Catmull shares the story of a couple with whom he and his wife were vacationing. The husband was driving the four of them in a large RV with dual wheels in the back. While navigating a roundabout, one of the rear tires blew. The couple started arguing about whether or not the tire had blown, and it soon became clear that they brought a lot of baggage into this argument. They were arguing one another passionately without addressing the problem at hand. Eventually, Catmull interjected and asked them to pull over so they could change the tire. Catmull uses this story to illustrate that old problems and arguments in well established relationships (baggage) can hinder our ability to tackle the problem at hand. A great deal of self awareness is required to avoid this pitfall.

Most people have heard of the Eastern teaching that it is important to exist in the moment. It can be hard to train yourself to observe what is right now (and not to bog down in thoughts of what was and what will be), but the philosophical teaching that underlies that idea – the reason that staying in the moment is so vital – is equally important: Everything is changing. All the time. And you can’t stop it. And your attempts to stop it actually put you in a bad place. It causes pain, but we don’t seem to learn from it. Worse than that, resisting change robs you of your beginner’s mind – your openness to the new.

Resistance to change causes pain. It also hinders our ability to see things as they are, to perceive truth. At Pixar, the culture is built in such a way to embrace change, to ride the dynamic wave of balance, and to acknowledge the unknown. The systems in place are flexible and subject to change because they are built on self aware, candid, and fearless individuals. Catmull claims people are more important for a company than ideas because ideas come from people. He says that a great idea given to mediocre people will produce a poor result, but a mediocre idea given to a great team will result in excellence.

Self awareness, candor, and fearlessness are the hallmarks of Pixar’s culture. It is the application of these principles to their goal of making great films that has led to Pixar’s success. Catmull addresses more specific methods to removing or navigating obstacles to creativity in Creativity, Inc. He provides eight mechanisms in place at Pixar to promote flexibility. He also addresses the issues of change and randomness, seeing the hidden, and the challenge of applying his management principles to another company, Disney Animation, while maintaining the integrity of the cultures at Pixar and Disney Animation. It is a great read with much more to offer than I can in this limited space.

Brandon Brockshus