Notes on Creativity, Inc

One of my all-time favourite books, by Ed Catmull — co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios.

Note: My notes cover ideas that rang true or were of particular personal interest. This isn’t a comprehensive summary of everything covered in the book.

People and Ideas

People > Ideas

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they’ll screw it up.
  • Give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team and they’ll either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.
  • Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

Honesty and Candor

  • Telling the truth is hard, but in a creative company it’s the only way to ensure excellence.
  • Candor has fewer moral connotations than honesty. Candor is not cruel, and it does not destroy.
  • You are not your idea. Don’t identify too closely with it, lest you may take offense.

How to Give Feedback (‘Good Notes’)

  • Good notes say what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear and what makes sense. They do not make demands or necessarily propose a fix. Most of all, they are specific.
  • Focus on the problem, not the person: When criticizing an idea, shift the emphasis away from the source and onto the idea itself.
  • Set up a healthy feedback system by removing power dynamics from the equation. Any successful feedback system is built on empathy.
  • Success = put smart, passionate people in a room, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.

The Creative Process

Creativity

  • Creativity = Unexpected connections between unrelated concepts and ideas.
  • Creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint.
  • When artists merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is merely craft without art.

Planning, Fear and Failure

  • Planning is important, but there’s only so much you can control in a creative environment, so be wrong as fast as you can, then pivot / course correct.
  • Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. Accept it, as we do the weather.
  • Failure hurts, but mistakes are an inevitable part of doing something new.
  • The concept of zero failures is worse than useless, it is counterproductive. If we aren’t experiencing failure, we’re making a worse mistake: being driven by the desire to avoid it.
  • In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people consciously and unconsciously avoid risk. Foster a positive understanding of failure and the opposite will happen.

Trust

  • Trust is the best tool for driving out fear.
  • Fear can be created quickly. Trust can’t.
  • Trust doesn’t mean that you trust someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them even when they do.
  • A manager’s default mode should never be secrecy. Secrecy = you can’t be trusted.

The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby

  • The Beast: Any large group that needs to be fed an uninterrupted diet of new material and resources in order to function.
  • The Ugly Baby: An early version of an idea that is awkward, formed, vulnerable and incomplete.
  • The beast is a glutton, but a valuable motivator. The baby is pure and unsullied, but needy and unpredictable. The key is for them to coexist peacfully.
  • In a healthy culture, each group recognizes the importance of balancing competing desires — they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win.

Leadership and Management

Hiring

  • Put away your own insecurities and always hire smarter than you.
  • Growth potential > Current skill level

How to Lead

  • People want their leaders to be confident: As long as you commit to a destination and drive towards it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.
  • Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so that if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course.
  • Good managers don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, listen, wrangle, coax and cajole.
  • It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.

Measuring Success as a Manager

  • The job is never what we think or expect.
  • A good measure of success = Look at individuals on your team. How are they working together? Can they rally to solve a problem? If yes, then you’re managing well.
  • Do not make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability.
  • A good manager is always on the lookout for areas where balance is lost.
  • Managers at creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.

Change and Randomness

  • As we become successful our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change.
  • Our brains are wired to look for patterns — not to think about randomness. We intellectually accept that it exists, but can’t completely grasp it, so it has less impact on our consciouesness than things we can see and measure.
  • Randomness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it is superimposed on the regular and repeatable patterns in our lives, so it appears hidden.
  • When big events happen and change things, it reaffirms our tendency to treat big events as fundamentally different than small ones.
  • Approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions.

The Hidden

  • One of Ed’s core management beliefs: If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
  • We each draw conclusions based on incomplete pictures. It is wrong to assume that one’s limited view is better.
  • Hierarchies and structured environments can contribute to the hiding of information.
  • People managing up (and treating those beneath them poorly) can obstruct the leader’s view.
  • Even employees with the purest intentions may be too timid to speak up.
  • Success convinces us that we are doing things the right way, but we should accept that we can’t understand every facet of complex environments and instead focus on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints.

Broadening Our View

  • As more people are added to a group, there is an inexorable drift towards inflexibility.
  • Just as individuals have biases and jump to conclusions because of the lens through which they view the world, organizations perceive the world through what they already know how to do.

The Power of Limits

  • Limits we impose internally, if deployed correctly, can be a tool to force people to amend the way they are working, and, sometimes, to invent another way.
  • Rule of thumb: Any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.

Postmortems

  • Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional, but by understanding the ways in which they are not.
  • Postmortems at Pixar: A meeting held shortly after the completion of every movie in which they explore what did and didn’t work and attempt to consolidate lessons learned.
  • There are five reasons to do a postmortem:
  1. Consolidate what’s been learned (before you forget it)
    Postmortems are a rare opportunity to do analysis that wasn't possible in the heat of the project.
  2. Teach others who weren’t there
  3. Don’t let resentments fester
    Providing a forum to express frustrations in a respectful manner helps people let go of misunderstandings and screw ups, and move on.
  4. Use the schedule to force reflection
    The scheduling of a postmortem alone forces self-reflection. The time spent preparing for the meeting is as valuable as the meeting itself.
  5. Pay it forward
    A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward.

Continuing to Learn

  • When a company is formed, the founders must have a startup mentality—beginner’s mind.
  • When it becomes successful, its leaders often cast off that mentality because they don’t want to be beginners any more.
  • Strive to keep beginner’s mind.

Miscellaneous

  • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.
  • A company’s communication structure shouldn’t mirror it’s organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose.
  • There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.
  • Be wary of making too many rules. Rules can simplify life for managers, but can be demeaning to the 95% who behave well. Address abuses of common sense individually.