12 Books in 12 Months — Creativity, Inc.

For some time now, “Read More” has been at the top of my New Year’s resolutions. Life has managed to always get in the way and I don’t finish the books I pick up— against my genuine interest. I’m tired of my resolution being an “I wish” at the end of the year and here’s what I’m going to do about it. 12 books in 12 months, go.

Month 1 — Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration written by Amy Wallace and Ed Catmull

Would I re-read?

Yes, most definitely. I’ll pick it back up when I need a splash of inspiration and motivation.

Who should read this?

Emerging leaders, fans of Pixar, and business managers.

What stuck out the most?

  1. People trump ideas

Products aren’t a singular idea; they’re a collective result from a multitude of ideas. Those ideas come from the people working on the project. So it’s not the features or latest advancement in technology that makes a product great, its the people behind the product.

Catmull realized that the main goal of Pixar’s development department was backward. Like other movie studios, a development department’s goal is to generate good scripts that potentially could be made into movies. After some serious soul searching, he came to the conclusion that, since ideas flow from people, people trump ideas.

Their development department pivoted, it was now dedicated to hiring the best people, finding out what they needed to produce their best work, match their skill set to projects where they will thrive, and to build high performing teams. The result? Ideas that developed into box-office hits.

Leaders take care of their people, the people take care of the customer/guest/product, the customer/guest/product takes care of the business.

2. Just-in-time manufacturing

The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. Catmull describes this as the beacon that lit his way while getting Pixar off the ground. He shares that this principle, an idea from the mind of W. Edwards Deming, would frame his approach to managing Pixar going forward. “To ensure quality, I believed, any person on any team needed to be able to identify a problem and, in effect, pull the cord to stop the line.Your people shouldn’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.

3. Seeing problems vs being on the lookout for problems

I’ve seen many managers of managers fail at actually seeing the problems in their organization because they were convinced they were already looking out for them. For example, Catmull explains that since Toy Story was so meaningful to work on, people were putting up with parts of their job that they hated. Classic and traditional example: “if our numbers are high, it must mean we’re doing great and nothing is wrongThe good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.

4. Strong performing teams are more valuable than ideas

Catmull summed it up perfectly multiple times in chapter four — “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.”, “Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.”, and “getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

5. Work/life balance is the leader’s responsibility

This story will always stick with me — The team at Pixar worked aggressively on Toy Story 2. Putting in long hours, seven days a week. One morning, an extremely tired artist put his infant child in the backseat with the intention of dropping the baby off at daycare on the way to work. After being at work for a few hours, his wife asked how the drop-off had gone — when he realized he’d left the baby in the car in the hot California sun. Thankfully, the child was okay but it could’ve been a tragedy.

The trauma of this moment stuck in Catmull’s head and he immediately knew it was unacceptable to ask his employees to do this much — even if they wanted to do it. He goes on to explain that supporting your team means encouraging them to support healthy habits and have fulfilling lives outside of work not by just saying “be balanced!.” It still surprises me that companies can put such short deadlines for projects or schedule them 10–12 hour shifts. These are people, with families and lives, not tools to use.

6. Mottos can give false assurance

Say “Story is King” to a creative and they will nod their heads in agreement. Companies and their managers can easily begin using similar phrases like “trust the process”, “teamwork makes the dream work”, and “trust builds teamwork, teamwork builds growth” but without actually acting and thinking that way, the words hold no weight.

“Merely repeating ideas means nothing. You must act and think accordingly.” Catmull tells us how bad Toy Story 2 could have been if they didn’t stop parroting phrases and actually paused the assembly line to dissect what was going wrong.

Phrases can become a crutch that could distract the team from effectively seeing and solving problems. Remember if you talk the talk then walk the walk.

7. Fail as fast as you can

Catmull shares that Andrew Stanton (Director of A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo) was fond of this saying. He goes on to explain that “in a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and don’t know which to choose, hurry up and choose one. If it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other.”

People will tend to avoid taking risks if the culture has a negative definition of failure. Your employees will instead repeat something safe, which stalls innovation. If leaders can talk about their msitakes and their part in them, then it makes it safe for others. Be open about problems and learn from them.

Not everything you do will succeed, but if you fail, then don’t dwell on it long. Learn what went wrong then try something else. Don’t be afraid of failure, keep going.

8. It’s not all about the money

Ed Catmull, John Lasseter (Director of Toy Story), and other Pixar leaders know that a paycheck isn’t enough. If a movie did exceptionally well, bonuses were given to the crew. To truly show gratitude and promote their belief that “great ideas come from anywhere”, Catmull gathers the directors and producers of the project to persoanlly distribute thank-you letters and bonus paychecks one-by-one to each crew member. It would be more efficient to wire these bonuses into each employee’s direct deposit account but to the leaders at Pixar easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal. This little effort of genuine gratitude shows the team that everyone is important, no matter their role.

9. Include your people, they are in it with you

At one surprising point, Pixar was suffering from three crises at once. Production costs were way up, external economical forces were adding pressure, and their culture of “good ideas come from anywhere”, was faltering. To fix this, Pixar leadership didn’t hire an outside consulting firm or keep the burden of finding a solution solely on management, they turned to their people. Pixar organized a massive all-day in-house summit called Notes Day, in which every employee shared the sole mission of brainstorming ways to solve these issues.

By organizing this huge collaboration, Pixar had already began to solve it’s third crisis by empowering their people and getting priceless feedback from the experts. This is ongoing process at the creative company and valuable aspect of Ed Catmull’s leadership style — listening. Catmull seeks to understand problems from the root cause by visiting his employee’s offices one by one, listening to their frustrations and ideas.

10. Steve Job’s arc

I’ve been an avid fan of Steve Jobs since the first iPhone keynote. My admiration for his genius led me down a rabbit-hole of books and movies to learn more about him. The Steve in these stories is regularly depicted as a man with extreme traits and difficult personality with almost impossible standards. Catmull shares a different point of view. He dedicates the afterword, the entire last impression of the book, to the Steve Jobs he knew.

He goes on to share the arc of his Steve from sharp-minded, dismissive, and brusque businessman to the fair, wise, and self-aware leader. While running two successful businesses, Steve was a committed husband and loving father. These relationships deepened his understanding of partnerships and people. He got smarter on how to bring out the best from people by learning how to stop pushing them or how to push them without breaking them.

Catmull continues on to share his respect for his long-time business partner while capturing the admiration he had for his dear friend. He knew a Steve that the world only caught of a glimpse of.

So?

I absolutely loved this book and have immediately applied many of Ed Catmull’s leadership aspects into my role as a millennial manager.

Buy Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull here.

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