Creativity Inc.: what it takes to build and sustain a culture of excellence

I just finished reading the book Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, this is my review…

Unlike books written by consultants about how wonderful the companies they study are, and how they have reverse engineered their formula for success into repeatable soundbites, Creativity Inc. was written by someone who was in the trenches; from the beginning. Written by Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar, Creativity Inc. is a first hand tell-all about what enables Pixar to do its thing: successfully turn original ideas into blockbusters, one after another.

Mr. Catmull’s motivation for writing this book stemmed from a simple question: why do successful companies fail?

Along with Disney, Pixar is a company I admire and emulate. And much like Mr. Catmull, I too have reflected on why successful companies fail (I’ve written quite a lot about that on this blog (here, here and here). And is a reason this book resonated with me, as I believe that just as humans have biases that inhibit us from continuously reinventing ourselves, so to organizations must overcome hidden barriers.

Mr. Catmull gives us a very deep view on how Pixar overcomes these hidden inhibitors to creative inspiration; even where creativity is expected.

Most of the mechanisms, such as the Braintrust and the dailies, Pixar uses to overcome those hidden barriers that stand in the way of originality have been written about before (here, here and here) so I won’t get into that too much. But, to give you an idea on how those mechanisms work, in the video below Mr. Catmull touches on how Pixar fosters collective creativity:

To add to the above, Pixar also uses common mechanisms such as a variation of the 20% time strategy popularized by Google, and they also conduct short-term experiments and postmortems. These mechanisms were created to fight their own mental models, and put Pixar’s collective heads in a different frame of mind.

That alone should make you pick up this book…

Key Points

For innovators who want to build a culture of innovation and an organization that will outlast you, here are some key ideas for you:

  • Nobody is immune to human biases, not even Pixar. Which makes it all the most wonderful that Mr. Catmull wrote this book. While people believe that every movie Pixar makes is going to be a blockbuster, what many don’t know  is that most of the original film ideas were completely different from the final reel. These people are disciplined about “getting it right”.
  • There is no “set it and forget it”. While culture is born out of design or simply as a matter of, excellence is a product of continuously keeping the bad away. What this means is that culture is not a system that we can set and then forget; we build culture everyday. There is no rest for the wicked!
  • The good hides the bad. Success hides problems. So, we have to constantly ask ourselves: What’s the wrong stuff that is hiding? What’s getting in our way? Always be on the lookout for things that are going wrong.
  • If it’s not good don’t let it out. Mr. Catmull lays out how most of the movies they put out went through some treatments beforehand. Essentially, they won’t put out a movie just to put out a movie. This is something they agreed on when they were in the process of releasing Toy Story 2.
  • Protect the ugly babies. Related to the previous point, the initial ideas will not be good. So, they need to be protected and given a chance to grow up.
  • We can’t stop the failures, they’re going to happen. If we try to stop them we’ll screw things up. You can’t separate originality from failure. Even Pixar, which exists in a creative industry, will make mistakes. Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur.
  • Without trust there is no creative collaboration, and that takes time to build. This might be the single most important idea from the book, and one that needs constant nurturing. It’s not sufficient to say that anyone can express themselves, you need to constantly coax people.

In conclusion

This book is for anyone who wants to build something meaningful that will outlast you. It is a humble look at what it takes to build and sustain a culture of excellence, one that embraces originality in its truest form. So, whether you are just starting out or have an established business, I highly recommend Creativity Inc. to you. It has applicable ideas, but more than anything it will broaden your view of why success in itself isn’t all that interesting; sustaining it is.

Enhanced by Zemanta