“Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull

Large organizations, at least in my experience, become rigid and set in their ways. It’s not that they don’t want to be creative, but the bureaucracy makes it so difficult for creatives or others with good ideas to affect meaningful change. There are certainly pockets where creativity and innovation is possible but it is frustratingly hard.

  1. What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge that 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.
  2. 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 mangers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.
  3. When it comes to creative inspiration, job title and hierarchy are meaningless.
  4. I would learn much about what managers should and shouldn’t do, about vision and delusion, about confidence and arrogance, about what encourages creativity and what snuffs it out.
  5. When faced with a challenge, get smarter.
  6. They took comfort in their familiar ways, and change meant being uncomfortable.
  7. A truly committed employee, they are wordlessly told, wants to be at work.
  8. Merely repeating ideas means nothing. You must act and think accordingly.
  9. To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.
  10. Everyone says that quality is important, but they must do more than say it. They must live, think, and breathe it.
  11. Candor is forthrightness or frankness—not so different from honesty, really. And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve. Everyone knows that sometimes, being reserved is healthy, even necessary for survival.
  12. Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another.
  13. A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific.
  14. The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.
  15. That early experience of shame is too deep-seated to erase. All the time in my work, I see people resist and reject failure and try mightily to avoid it, because regardless of what we say, mistakes feel embarrassing. There is a visceral reaction to failure; it hurts.
  16. “Fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it is inconceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without tipping over a few times.
  17. If you aren’t experiencing failure, ten 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 out-thinking it—dooms you to fail.
  18. In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risks. 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.
  19. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance.
  20. There are two parts to any failure: there is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is the second part that we control. Do we become introspective or do we bury our heads in the sand? Do we make it safe for others to acknowledge and learn from problems or do we shut down discussion by looking for people to blame? We must remember that failure gives us chances to grow, and we ignore those chances at our own peril.
  21. Getting middle managers to tolerate (and not to feel threatened by) problems and surprises is one of our most important jobs; they already feel the weight of believing if they screw up, there will be hell to pay. How do we get people to reframe the way they think about the process and the risks?
  22. The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world.
  23. Trusting others doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (of if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly, trust can’t.
  24. In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognize the importance of balancing competing desires—they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win.
  25. Describe creativity as “unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.”
  26. There is the discomfort of being confused or the extra work or stress the change may require. For many people, changing course is also a sign of weakness, tantamount to admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing.
  27. Our people have good intentions. To think you can control or prevent random problems by making an example of someone is naïve and wrongheaded.
  28. Accept that we can’t understand every facet of a complex environment and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints.
  29. I’ve noticed what might be called a “law of subverting successful approaches,” by which I mean once you’ve hit on something that works, don’t expect it to work again, because attendees will know how to manipulate it the second time around.
  30. Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do.
  31. If you are mindful, you are able to focus on the problem at hand without getting caught up in plans or processes. Mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.
  32. Shift the emphasis in any meeting away from the source of an idea and onto the idea itself. People often place too much significance on the source of an idea.
  33. When looking to hire new people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.
  34. If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.
  35. There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons then address them.
  36. People are hesitant to say things that might rock the boat. Braintrust meetings, dailies, post-mortems, and Notes Day are all efforts to reinforce the idea that it is okay to express yourself. All are mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what’s real.
  37. If there is more truth in the hallways that in meetings, you have a problem.
  38. 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.
  39. Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
  40. It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manger’s job to make it safe to take them.
  41. Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  42. Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them even when they do screw up.
  43. The people ultimately responsible for implementing a plan must be empowered to make decisions when things go wrong, even before getting approval. Finding and fixing problems is everybody’s job. Anyone should be able to stop the production line.
  44. The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal. It leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than their ability to solve problems.
  45. A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  46. The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.
  47. Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.
  48. Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensible activity and something we should continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration


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