Lessons From “Creativity, Inc.”

By Selina Petosa, Founder and CCO

About a year ago, Dennis O’Reilly, our Executive Creative Director, gave me a book; it was one that once I started reading, I couldn’t put down.

“Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, is essentially a book about how to build a creative culture told through the lens of Ed’s experience at Pixar. It’s good stuff for sure, filled with rich stories ranging from how “Toy Story” was created, to what working with Steve Jobs was like, to how Pixar almost went bankrupt after George Lucas tried to sell the studio. It’s a read I recommend for everybody in our company, not only for the entertainment factor, but for the lessons included — and in lessons, there are many.

In “Creativity, Inc.”, Ed outlines the good, the bad, and the ugly within the hard-fought experiences he faced in building a world-class company truly focused on quality storytelling. The book is as much about Pixar’s evolution as a company as it is an in-depth analysis of any company focused on creating something meaningful in the market with a passionate and talented team and a clear mission. Many industry accolades have been given, and “Creativity, Inc.” is often noted as one of the best textbooks on how to build a creative culture. In fact, when it came out, Forbes stated, “It’s one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership. Ever.”

I bring this book up today because this past quarter, it was one of the textbooks for my coursework at Parsons. When I realized that, I was like, cool — I’ve already read it! But within the context of my work at Parsons, I thought it was best to re-read it with fresh eyes. In doing so, I found several key takeaways worth sharing.

Hire the best people.

One of the biggest reasons behind Pixar’s success is its people. Early on, Ed identified the need to hire the best. And by the best, I mean people who were better at him at the job. As the leader of the company, this meant Ed had to face his own insecurities, knowing that each new hire may know more than he did. His telling of this realization is a beautiful and humble acknowledgement of him putting his own ego aside, and instead, focusing on building an ecosystem of talent, versus an egocentric organization filled with individuals. We have taken that philosophy to heart at Rational.

Quality is the best business plan.

Pixar’s north star goal was always (and has always been) focused on quality storytelling. The technical innovations, the cutting edge technologies they invented to produce their stories, was always second to the actual quality of the story. The focus on quality is important here as it’s very relevant to what each and every one of us does day in and day out.

I recall a recent story with a client event that was so focused on quality, we changed venues due to the health rating of the restaurant. That is a focus on quality. The bottom line is, quality matters in our work. It’s how we differentiate, how we build and earn the trust of our team and our clients. Quality is the best business plan.

People are more important than ideas.

I love this lesson from Ed. In the book, he speaks of a big debate at Pixar around what’s more important, the people or the ideas? Ed simply points out that there would be no ideas if there weren’t people, therefore people are most important! Duh. It seems so obvious, but the lesson here is meaningful. As Ed states, if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or come up with something better; that’s why people matter. To add to that, that’s why teams matter, and why good team chemistry matters. You have to have a collaborative, positive, and supportive dynamic with your team. If you do, bad ideas can become great, and you can turn lemons into lemonade.

Do not confuse process with the goal.

We live in an organization where process is essential. And we pride ourselves on having just enough process to keep things moving efficiently, but not too much process to get in the way. That said, making the process easier, better, faster, and cheaper is something we should continually work on — but it is NOT the goal. Making something great for our clients is the goal. The process we need to facilitate that one goal should be the focus of our process.

Failure isn’t a necessary evil.

At Rational, we often speak about failing fast and failing often. This stems from the notion of supporting risks and doing so in a space where you can assess failure quickly, then evaluate the path forward, understanding the possibility of success.

In our past, failure has often been convoluted with fear. In Ed’s book, he clearly outlines how the two need to be decoupled. Fear and failure are not intertwined. According to Ed, “Making mistakes should never strike fear into our hearts. When it comes to creative endeavors, a goal of zero failure is worse than useless. It is counterproductive. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”

Per Ed’s advice, let’s let go of fear. Failure is part of our reality. The courageous are those who take chances, and risk failure, risk scrutiny in the goal of helping, and doing what is best for our clients. Yes, sometimes that is scary. But is it worth it? Absolutely.

Give good notes and feedback.

I loved seeing this theme when I re-read “Creativity, Inc.”, and looking at it with fresh eyes made me proud of some of our most recent efforts as a company. We are working hard to be better at giving frequent feedback and providing specific notes. Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. This requires each one of us signing up to provide details to our team, peers, and leaders on:

  • What’s working
  • What’s not working
  • What’s missing
  • What doesn’t make sense
  • What isn’t clear

The point here is, we all need to work on providing specific feedback that is clear, concise, and actionable. This is not just the job of our managers. This is all of our responsibility.

Rational Ideas is the thought leadership hub for Rational, a digital agency and consultancy based in Seattle, WA.