Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Discover our series of HR MustReads. Our goal is to help those who make up the workforce of organisations keep their minds open to the best of what’s written on their craft. HR is such a large subject that our MustReads include a wide variety of inspiring books about organisations, management, recruitment, employment, and even anthropology, sociology and psychology! 

Our episode 2 is dedicated to creative organisations. Read our abstract of Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc (2014) to find out how your organisation can be made to foster creativity and innovation.

Pixar's unique creative culture

The author of Creativity, Inc. is the co-founder of Pixar Animated Studios (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter). Creativity, Inc. is an exciting management book—yes, there is such a thing as an exciting management book!—that explores how managers can create value with original and creative employees. It also provides a unique opportunity to have a peep inside Pixar, understand its inner workings, story meetings, postmortems and ‘Braintrust’ sessions where art is made. 

Catmull dedicated his entire career to cultivating creativity in others. And Pixar can certainly be said to have been successful at producing creative work: it has dominated the world of animation for two decades with box-office hits such Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, WALL-E, and Inside Out. Joyful storytelling, inventive plots, brilliant animation: Pixar is as creative as creative companies get! 

In the book Catmull reveals the HR ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so admired and profitable. To nurture creativity over time, Pixar first had to create a culture of creativity…

How can a creative culture be built?

Ed Catmull and his colleagues created a unique work environment based on a leadership and management philosophy thought up to protect the creative process. Here are some of the major principles they came up with:

  • A manager’s job is not to prevent risks. His / her job is to make sure everybody feels comfortable enough to take risks.[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.
  • A risk-averse environment ends up being more costly than a risk-prone one. Trying to avoid mistakes will force you to avoid everything innovative as well. You can’t be creative if you are obsessed with avoiding mistakes. “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.
  • Over-planning stifles innovation. If you want your employees to try uncharted pathways, don’t plan too much! As Steve Jobs famously said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”. “So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.
  • Everybody must be able to communicate with everybody else in the company. In no way should the structure of communication reflect that of the organisation. “Anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand. Communication would no longer have to go through hierarchical channels.
  • Errors don’t matter, it’s the reaction to them that does. Everybody must be able to intervene and bring solutions. “You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” 

Hire people with potential rather than people with skills

Most recruiters will pay lip-service to the idea of hiring people with potential but actually pay more attention to what a candidate has already achieved in the past than to what they may achieve in the future. It isn’t easy to assess the potential of somebody regardless of what they have already achieved.

After many years of research on achievement and success, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck came up with the simple and profound distinction between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset”. Ed Catmull may not mention Dweck’s research in his book but everything he writes confirms that as far as HR is concerned, you’re better off with growth-mindset talent. 

In a fixed mindset, people believe that talent and intelligence are fixed traits. They also believe that talent creates success more or less without effort. According to Catmull, it’s quite the opposite! An employee’s abilities are developed through dedication and hard work. Therefore whoever is resilient and loves to learn has what it takes to accomplish great things. Great people ALWAYS have a growth-mindset.

Recruiters should never recruit based on knowledge. Indeed ignorance can even be a good thing if it comes with the right mindset. 

THERE IS NOTHING quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.

Therefore recruiters ought to pay special attention to the candidates’ mindset. And managers ought to make sure that mindset is nurtured and valued in their teams. When you grow you makes tons of mistakes along the way, which is perfectly fine.

Learn from all your mistakes

Every project (film) requires years and years of hard work. When the work is over, the teams would like to move on quickly to the next project. But Pixar teams must first do a “postmortem” before they are allowed to move on. They are expected to learn all the lessons that can be learned from the previous project, understand everything that went wrong as well as everything that went well. Each participant is asked to list the 5 things they would do again the same way and the 5 things they would do differently. 

Nobody should leave the “postmortem” session with any resentment. No misunderstanding can persist. Because some of the problems may have been personal, some employees may at first be reluctant to engage in the “postmortem” process. That’s why it’s so important to institutionalise the process, make it into a sort of ritual. Then it’s easier to prepare for what lies ahead. 

Originality is as fragile as a baby: you need to protect it 

Originality is always under threat in a big organisation, where efficiency and process may always be favoured. That’s what Catmull call the “Hungry Beast”. The Beast makes demands: it expects budgets and deadlines to be strictly adhered to, which of course is necessary in every organisation. 

However the Beast should not be allowed to kill what Catmull calls the “Ugly Baby”. It is a manager’s job to prevent the Beast from threatening the creative potential that produces awkward incomplete creations that require time to grow and become perfect. At the beginning every creation is ugly and imperfect. Give it time to grow and improve! Don’t feed the Beast!

New ideas are a bit like an ugly baby, you love them but no one else does. They need time and space to develop.

To protect the Ugly Baby requires team work, the same way it takes a village to raise a child: “You can’t raise that ugly baby on your own. It takes a village

Conclusion

Creativity, Inc.’s most fundamental lesson is that no creativity-inducing environment can be made to exist without a structure and culture that allow individual expression and a high level of autonomy. 

According to Catmull every organisation should opt for an iterative approach. To survive we must learn to adapt fast and learn constantly. What’s true for individuals is also true for teams. Creativity, Inc.’s lessons are very valuable lessons for our age of innovation! 

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