Friday, September 19, 2014

Creativity, Inc. : Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
(with Amy Wallace)
Most movie-goers will be familiar with the wide range of award winning computer-animated movies produced by Pixar (beginning with Toy Story in 1995 through to Monster University in 2013), and they might know some of their principal directors and recurring voice actors.  They may also have come across the name of John Lasseter (Pixar's Creative Officer), and some of the other players in Pixar's history - Steve Jobs, various folks at Disney, etc.  Outside of the film world though, one might only have ever seen Pixar President Ed Catmull at the Oscar ceremonies picking up Pixar's many awards.

Aside from being a pioneering computer scientist, Ed Catmull was also thrown into various leadership positions throughout his career along his route to realizing his dream of creating computer animated movies.  This book could easily be picked up as an insider's guide to the inner workings of Pixar, and many important players of the entertainment world (George Lucas, Michael Eisner, and Steve Jobs to name-drop a few).  It could also be picked up as an entertaining biography of one of Pixar's principal founders.

And while this book is indeed all those things, it's primary role is to be a book about business leadership.  Once his initial dream was realized upon the release and success of Toy Story, Catmull found himself in the position of figuring out what his next challenge should be.  He determined that it would be to figure out how to maintain and grow his fledgling company, and to ensure that it remain flexible, creative, and focused on excellence.

He writes very clearly using many concrete examples from Pixar's organizational history, providing insight into the following challenges a creative organization can face.  Many problems revolve around the development of organizational culture in order to foster an environment of openness and honesty with the ability to speak candidly regardless of position within the company.  Employees at every level have different insights into the way things work, and suggestions for improvement.  They should be able to speak without fear of reprisal.  The creative organization should also be able to respond to change and deal with random events in the environment, and be structurally resilient to adapt and grow in the face of these changes.  Catmull outlines how all of these issues have been addressed (in ongoing processes) at Pixar.

I think that many of the lessons from the book can be applied in any workplace (not just entertainment companies), and Catmull deliberately keeps the definition of "creativity" very vague such that his ideas would resonate in any context.  The only big blind spot that is never addressed - probably because in his world the answer is obvious - he assumes that any given organization is staffed by highly motivated people who are committed to excellence - they just run into problems sometimes.  In order to fix these problems, Catmull needs the workers to be engaged with their workplace and be sincere in their desire to improve their working environment.  And maybe in his world anyone just punching the clock and doing the bare minimum would be fired straight away, but sadly not all workplaces are like that.  Catmull addresses many things to improve performance and workplace engagement, but nothing about how to get a mediocre worker to become engaged and become interested in taking on new challenges.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Creativity, Inc. strike a balance between being a Hollywood expose, a biography, and a business manual?  Given the intent to be a business management book, how does it succeed?
  2. "Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.  Doing all these things won't necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier.  But ease isn't the goal; excellence is."  This one quotation pretty much sums up the whole book.  Does Catmull hit the nail on the head here?
  3. Do you think the management advice offered here is applicable in any of the workplaces you have experienced?
  4. Many anecdotes in the book revolve around Pixar's Braintrust.  What do you think of this type of committee, and could other organizations use one?
  5. If you are not a manager or supervisor, is this book still worth reading?  What would the non-manager gain by reading it?
  6. What is creativity?  How is the term used?
  7. Have you seen any of the movies referenced by Catmull?  Does your view of them change after reading this book?
  8. How important is prior knowledge of Pixar and its movies to the reading of Creativity, Inc.?
  9. Would you want to work for Ed Catmull or Pixar?
  10. What is the most significant thing you learned from this book?

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue

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