So many business books are very focused on tactics, sometimes excellent, sometimes too high level to be useful in everyday life. Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. is a different breed of book. It perfectly blends real stories from the early (and later) days of Pixar with tried and true business tactics for managing large organizations and everyday relationships. Ed Catmull shares the triumphs and failures that will equally captivate the business junkie and the artful creative giving them a look behind the scenes of one of the greatest creative business organizations of our time.
If you only read one chapter, read Chapter 6: Fear and Failure. This chapter dissects both creative and leadership processes and proves that success in either is about a teams ability to pioneer, fail, and recover. It goes into great detail about Pixar’s own failures that almost doomed the company, and how they recovered. Ed Catmull captures some of the most important guts of leadership in beautifully simple terms… allow a team to try, accept them when they fail, and then help them rebuild.
In my favorite passages I’ve highlighted below you’ll see a trend – fear of failure and uncertainty and a leaders’ job to chart the course. This is, of course, influenced by my timing in reading this. I’m leaving a corporate culture terrified of risk to throw chance to the wind and go independent. I’m fucking scared, that’s the truth, but the new and better can only come from the unknown.
For all you Steve Jobs fans out there (myself included) the afterword gives an amazing look into Steve and his relationship with Ed, John, and Pixar. It sheds light on a Steve that we often don’t see—less of the tyrant, more of the incredible risk-taking leader who provided the foundation for great creative culture. As Catmull says: “I worked closely with Steve Jobs for twenty-six years. To this day, for all that has been written about him, I don’t believe that any of it comes close to capturing the man that I knew.”
Catmull’s closing sentence sums up the book and everything that you’ll learn from it in the exact style of the book—clear, simple, profound. “Ease isn’t the goal, excellence is.” In reading the book, I found a greater appreciation for the simple and impactful ways in which leaders can create a culture that thrives in uncertainty, manages fear, and creates incredible things.
Some impactful excerpts…
On Managing Teams ::
“Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say that you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with each other is the real key… That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not the talents of the individuals within it…. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” (Establishing Pixar’s Identity | p. 74)
“This idea—that change is our friend because only from struggle does clarity emerge—makes many people uncomfortable, and I understand why… The potential cost of failure appears far more damaging than that of micromanaging. But if we shun such necessary investment—tightening up controls because we fear the risk of being exposed for having made a bad bet—we become the kind of right thinkers and managers who impede creativity.” (Change and Randomness | p.153)
“If all our careful planning cannot prevent problems, then our best method of response is to enable employees at every level to own the problems and have the confidence to fix them.” (Change and Randomness | p.163)
“It’s management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy—as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run… A good manager must always be on the lookout for areas in which balance has been lost.” (The Hungary Beast and the Ugly Baby | p. 139)
On Failure ::
“[Mistakes] are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality.)” (Fear and Failure | p. 108)
“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 outthinking it—dooms you to fail.” (Fear and Failure | p. 109)
“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.” (Fear and Failure | p. 111)
“Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you can trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.” (Fear and Failure | p. 125)
On Leadership ::
“As leaders, we should think of ourselves as teachers and try to create companies in which teaching is seen as a valued way to contribute to the success of the whole… One of the most crucial responsibilities of leadership is creating a culture that rewards those who lift not just our stock prices but our aspirations as well.” (Fear and Failure | p. 123)
“Give [people] responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason—our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” (Fear and Failure | p. 128)
On Creative Process ::
“Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” (Broadening Our View | p. 196)
“In any business, it’s important to do your homework, but the point I’m making goes beyond merely getting the facts straight. Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep cliches at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.” (Broadening Our View | p. 198)
“Invention, after all, is an active process that results from decisions we make; to change the world, we must bring new things into being. But how do we go about creating an unmade future? I believe all we can do is foster the optimal conditions which it—whatever “it” is—can emerge and flourish. This is where real confidence comes in. Not the confidence that we know exactly what to do all times but the confidence that, together, we will figure it out.” (The Unmade Future | p. 224)
“The future is not a destination—it is a direction… To keep a creative culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.” (Notes Day | p. 295)
“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 of these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal, excellence is.” (Notes Day | p. 295)
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