Creativity, Inc. key takeaways

I seriously enjoyed this book about how Pixar stays creative. It was incredibly satisfying hearing Ed Catmull stories about building arguably the most effective storytelling engine of the digital age. Pixar is an example of the benefits of favoring candor over bullshit and politics. Every movie they made has reached number 1 in the box office. This is an extraordinary track record compared to all other Hollywood studios.

I also recently read Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal and High Output Management by Andy Grove. All three books talk about the importance of candor to promote trust which leads to shared consciousness. You can then empower all employees to act when they discover problems. This leverages the power of the entire network of people within an organization which is infinitely more powerful than just leveraging the knowledge and skills of leadership.

I am sometimes reluctant to speak out in meetings because I assume others would have more valuable insights. This is a misconception, there is no reason why the CEO would have a better idea than an intern. Everyone in an organization is paid because they have something to contribute.

Ed repeatedly talked about getting board when Pixar was doing well. He enjoyed solving problems and building the company but maintenance was uninteresting. This made me realize that I should listen to myself when I’m bored as it probably means I am doing the wrong thing.

Culture

Pixar instilled a culture of openness from the top down. Ed reiterated time and time again the need for candor between everyone in the organization. There were many little things they did to foster their culture from allowing employees to personalize their workstation to not having contracts. No one at the company should work there because they have to, they should come to work every day because they want to. Culture is like a set of informal agreements and ways of thinking which guide employees decision making and interactions. It’s important everyone knows what to say yes to and what to say no to otherwise they will end up doing everything. Pixar encored everyone to be candid without fear of retribution. This promoted trust which is a key element of an effective team.

Make the best films

Pixar never compromised on quality. Any time they had a tough decision to make they always ultimately had to ask “Will this enable us to make the best film”. This mission may have wasted some money and time in the short run but it paid huge dividends in the long term. Ed learned that you can’t let process distract you from your mission.

Leverage the team

Management can’t predict the future so you must trust your employees and empower them to make decisions and solve problems even before getting approval. Many random events ultimately factor into any success or failure so don’t kid yourself that everything you did was perfect. If the environment is different next time you might not succeed by doing the same thing.

Blindness

People filter themselves when they interact with senior leadership which can prevent leaders from seeing issues. This makes it even more important to encourage candor. Preconceptions can also blind you to problems. Ed’s example talked about people who are learning to draw for the first time. When beginners draw a face they sketch the eyes and nose way to big and the forehead too small so the proportions are all out of wack. This is because we have very strong preconceptions of what a face looks like so we are blind to what they actually look like. To get around this issues students draw something upside-down which changes their perspective. Over time artists learn to ignore their preconceptions when they need to.

Tools

Ed instituted weekly Braintrust meetings where a group of key creatives would meet every week to discuss a movie with 100% candor. This made it easy to surface issues. A key component was directors were not obligated to act on the feedback they got in the brain trust meetings. Everyone trusts that the feedback is in the service of a common goal, to make the best movie.

Post-mortems were incredibly valuable in assessing what went well and what went badly after each movie. This gave them the attention to make adjustments to their process before starting the next project. They found people were uncomfortable with speaking out about what went wrong so they asked everyone to make a list of the top 5 things that went well and the bottom 5 things that went poorly. People were much more comfortable talking about the bad stuff when it was balanced out with the good.

Once a year every employee could submit suggestions for improving the company or solving problems and they would all meet to discuss the most intriguing issues. This was called Notes Day and every employee participated. They would spend a full day participating in structured discussions about each issue and the findings would be carefully documented and assigned an owner. This lead to many meaningful changes in the company.

Other useful nuggets

I took loads of notes while reading this book so I have listed them here. Ed cautioned that it’s hard to condense these ideas down to a few words so you should use them as a starting point for further inquiry but don’t just blindly follow the advice as it may not apply to the context of your situation.

Getting the right team with the right chemistry is more important than the movie idea. Team members need to compliment each other.

Trust comes from not getting judged by your colleagues for your failures. you should be able to speak out without fear of getting judged or reprimanded.

Honest is important but being candid is a better way of looking at it as it holds less moral connotations.

Quality is not a result of process. It is a prerequisite, you must commit to quality from the outset and let that inform all your other actions.

Focus on the problem, not the person, to avoid defensiveness.

Fail fast and early.

Make decisions quickly. Don’t be a bottleneck.

If people perceive failure as a negative thing it can impend progress.

Secrets are antithetical to trust.

Don’t let streamlining your processes distract you from your goal which is making great movies. You need to balance feeding the beast with achieving your goal.

Processes must be flexible and evolve quickly. Keep this in mind and build lightweight systems.

Pixar track person week to measure the resources for each movie. A typical movie takes 18,000 person weeks to complete. To help directors manage resources they used popsicle sticks to represent person weeks and stuck them up on a board so you could clearly see how many person weeks each part of the movie was taking. If the director wanted to speed up a section by adding some person weeks they would have to take the popsicle sticks from somewhere else.

Any time you implement procedures sent ask how do we stop people from screwing up. Instead, ask how do we enable people to solve problems.

Data is valuable but realize you can’t gather data about everything so data will not show you the whole picture.

Pixar university didn’t directly help their bottom line but it promoted interactions between staff who would never normally meet.

Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they will fix it or replace it.

Give new hires potential to grow more weight than their skill level.

Hire people better than you.

Everyone can have ideas. Engage collective brainpower.

Careful messaging to downplay problems is stupid.

The first conclusions we draw from successes and failures are typically wrong. Measuring the outcome without evaluating process is deceiving.

The cost of preventing errors is often more expensive than fixing them.

It’s not managers job to prevent risk. It’s their job to enable their people to take calculated risks.

Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new.

Trust doesn’t mean you trust someone only when they don’t screw up. It means you trust them even when they do screw up.

The people responsible for implementing a plan must be empowered to make decisions to fix problems even before getting approval.

Finding and fixing problems is everybody’s job. Anyone should be able to stop the production line.

Don’t wait for things to be perfect before sharing them with others. Show them early and often.

A companies communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

Be careful of too many rules. They can make managers lives easier but they can be demeaning to the 95% of people who behave well. Address abuses of common sense individually, this is more work but healthier.

Imposing limits like budget or deadline can encourage a creative response.

Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.

An organization as a whole can be more resistant to change than the people who comprise it.

The healthiest organization is made up of departments with different agendas but the same goals. It one department’s agenda wins we all loose.

A manager’s job is to protect new ideas from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge there has to be a period of nongreatness.

Protect the future, not the past.

Words like excellence, quality and good are earned by us from others. We don’t assign these words to ourselves.

Balance is more important than stability.