creativity inc.: overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration
This book, charting the phenomenal rise of one of the world's most successful creative powerhouses, Pixar Animation Studios, offers valuable insights for any leader who is looking to manage innovation or harness the creative energy of a team. Heads of communication, public engagement managers, lab directors, team leaders...this one's for you!
When people think of a creative act they often have an image of a lone artist experiencing a flash of inspiration before producing something incredibly beautiful and/or valuable, be it a piece of music, an artwork, or an idea.
But this romantic notion of creativity does not much tally with the reality. The creative process can be arduous, drawn out over long periods of time, and is often the result of a collective effort on the part of a team rather than the work of a single individual.
In that sense, one company that perfectly embodies creativity in action is Pixar Animation Studios. Pioneers in the art and craft of animation the Pixar team have, for the past twenty five years, dominated the world of animation through a mastery of boundary-pushing technique, cutting edge technology and, most importantly of all, captivating storytelling. Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles. All of these iconic films and more have emerged from the minds and machines of Pixar’s team of animation geniuses.
At the helm of the Pixar ship is the man who was put in charge of the business when it was a computer hardware company back in the 1980s and who has worked as the company’s chief ever since, Ed Catmull.
In this book Catmull reflects on his time in charge. His goal is not to tell Pixar’s story as such but to try and unpick how he and the company’s gifted leaders have developed an environment in which creativity can flourish.
Here are some of his key takeaways.
Mantras Mean Nothing Without Action
In the early days of Pixar the company's ethos was driven by a guiding principle...Story Is King. But before long Catmull realised from speaking to others in the creative industry that they all had the same mantra, regardless of whether they were producing quality work or absolute dross.
This led him to the realisation that it's no good to simply repeat a mantra like this, you must think and act accordingly.
The words have to mean something. Having a line on your website saying how much you value the importance of public engagement is all very well but it’s a line that can be found on every research group’s website across the country, regardless of whether that group is driven by a genuine intention to engage the public with their work or whether they’ve done nothing more than to send a couple of team members to a science fair five years ago and took some photos to stick up on the website.
Mantras need to be backed up by action otherwise they’re meaningless. And I think we could all do with taking a moment to consider whether or not we can justify the claims we make about our own working philosophies.
Candor Is Everything
The need for honesty and transparency is a vein that runs throughout the book. A large part of the success of Pixar's films is thanks to the existence of the Braintrust - an ever changing collection of the company's most experienced and talented directors and storytellers, who come together to provide analysis of films all the while they’re being made, from script development right through to final animation.
Catmull likens it to a creative version of the scientific peer review process. An opportunity for the filmmakers to have their ideas and efforts tested by experts in the field, so that they can go away and refine their work until it’s as good as it can be. And he believes that every organisation can replicate this idea for themselves, creating a solutions group who can a) make you think smarter and b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.
As Catmull says, “You don’t want to be at a company where there’s more candor in the hallways than in rooms where fundamental matters of policy or ideas are being hashed out.”
Failure = Innovation
Failure is an essential ingredient in any creative enterprise, according to Catmull. Entrepreneurs and corporations often claim to accept failure, he says, but they don’t see it as something valuable. They still seek to avoid it wherever possible. Catmull thinks differently. He sees it as an essential part of any form of innovation. Again, he likens it to the scientific process. It’s iterative. Science experiments build on the failures of past experiments to achieve greater understanding. In that sense any outcome is a good one and the same philosophy can be applied to creative processes. That’s why Catmull embraces failure as a signal that his team is striving for innovation: “If you’re not failing then you’re making a worse mistake; you’re being driven by the desire to avoid failure.”
Postmortems Are Healthy
We usually associate postmortems with morbidity but Catmull says that in a managerial and creative setting they can be incredibly healthy. After each film project is finished Pixar devotes a day to conducting a comprehensive postmortem of what went well and what went less well during the process. Everybody involved in the making of the film is involved and all opinions are welcomed.
These postmortem sessions achieve a number of things, such as serving as a way to consolidate all you’ve learned before you forget it and preventing resentments from festering by giving people a forum to express their grievances. In addition, the process of preparing for a postmortem can be as important as the session itself, as it encourages a period of self-reflection that you might not otherwise bother with.
It’s clear to see how postmortems could work for any team that’s just put on a public engagement event or produced some new communications content but simply gathering people in a room and asking them to vent about their experiences might not get the results you want, so Catmull gives his top tips to conducting a healthy postmortem session.
Don’t repeat the same format every time. People can manipulate what they’ve already experienced before so you’re more likely to get honest feedback if you switch things up.
Some people are always likely to be reluctant to be critical. One way to overcome this is to ask people to write list of five things they thought went well during the project and a list of five things that didn’t work. Balancing negative with positive helps people open up.
Make use of data. Data is neutral and doesn’t create value judgements.
But be aware of the limits of data. Analysing it correctly can be difficult and it is dangerous to suggest you always know what it means: “Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do”
As a huge fan of Pixar’s films I personally loved hearing about how they were crafted and the way in which the company has developed over the years but you don’t have to be an animation fanatic to derive value from Catmull’s book.
I’m sure that anybody who manages a team, big or small, and who is looking for ways to encourage greater and more focused creativity amongst its members can gain a lot from reading it.
The one thing that threatens to undermine the book’s credibility - and it’s certainly not a minor one - is the exposure, since its publication, of the sexual misconduct of Pixar’s co-founder, John Lasseter. In 2017 Lasseter was forced to step aside from his position as Creative Director of the company after accusations of sexual harassment emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Lasseter agreed that his behaviour had been unacceptable with the unsavoury admission that he might have been guilty of giving too many ‘unwanted hugs’.
So where does that leave Catmull’s claim that honesty and transparency are the values that Pixar holds above all others? If Lasseter’s behaviour was unknown to the management team then clearly people weren’t being as open as Catmull thinks. Or perhaps they did know about it but chose to ignore it, which is clearly far worse.
The whole situation does leave a bit of a cloud hanging over the book, I must admit, and I can understand why some people might think the scandal makes its attempt to celebrate candor and camaraderie unpalatable but the Pixar story is about more than the behaviour of one man. The success of its films is thanks to teams of thousands of storytellers, artists and technicians who have all played a pivotal role in creating some of the most iconic films of our times and who are the heroes of this book, as much as Pixar’s management team.
So, for that reason I believe it still deserves to be read and enjoyed. I’d love to know what you think though, so if you do check it out let me know.
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.