Selva Book Club: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
The below is taken from Selva Ventures’ Q4 2021 Quarterly Investor Letter
This section of our letters will take passages from a relevant investment or business book and share learnings and reflections directly related to Selva.
The third installment was inspired by our journey of collaborating with creative talent, a fascinating aspect of investing in modern brands. This quarter we read: Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder Ed Catmull.
Passage: Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. There is an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet — in my experience — is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.
Since expanding the team I’m obsessing over getting culture and process right. In every step of my career, I’ve been surrounded with people who are smart, ambitious and fundamentally good, yet I can’t say that those teams were all effective. Madeline and I have already spent so much time building trust to find an early groove, because we believe the chemistry and trust will breed repeatability of idea generation and rigorous vetting of those ideas.
Passage: Why were we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded. Those not sitting at the center of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we — the leaders — had intended that outcome..
I love lessons of unintended consequences. They always remind me that good intentions are necessary but insufficient to achieve good results; they must be combined with a deep curiosity or else your blind spots will be your downfall. The long boardroom table boxing out the junior employees who sit on the end kept Pixar from surfacing ideas that would have made the Company better. The same thing plays out at companies all over the country every day in different forms; if leadership doesn’t ask if their process is silencing key voices then they are only hurting themselves. Symbols matter, curiosity and openness to change is the solution.
Passage: Moreover, we don’t want the Braintrust to solve a director’s problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with. We believe that ideas — and thus, films — only become great when they are challenged and tested.
Reading about the Pixar Braintrust, the committee of senior leaders who provide a constructive sounding board to directors, reminded me so much of a CPG Board at its best. Supportive investors and independents who want the Company and Founders to thrive can ask great questions and provide great insight on a Board, but everything falls apart when they start telling the Founders what to do. The beauty of brands, and why I love this industry so much, is that we can’t do what these talented and creative founders can, but that doesn’t mean we can’t provide really meaningful support when we nail the culture. Pixar’s Braintrust has set the gold standard here.
Passage: At [Notes] Day’s end, as the entire company gathered outside for beer, hot dogs, and some instant analysis, I noticed people from different departments continuing the discussions they’d begun inside. The energy on the whole campus was electric. This was the Pixar that they wanted, that we wanted.
Pixar’s “Notes Day” is an inspiring example of what happens when you empower employees to act like owners and make the culture better. So many executive teams explicitly or implicitly discourage constructive feedback, missing the profound opportunity to trust their employees to solve their problems. What often occurs, as did in the passage above, is that a deep feeling of engagement and purpose will come alongside fresh new ideas.
Please drop a comment on what you think of the format and what suggestions you have for future books. Next quarter’s book will be No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer.