Book review: Creativity Inc

I’m a huge fan of Pixar films like Toy Story, Wall-E, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, so I wanted to read this as a way to see in and understand how films I like get made. What I found instead was an amazing insight into a creative business culture where a top-down management is eschewed in favour of openness and sharing. Working in a fairly creative environment myself (maybe not the traditional creative work but us LTs do need the ability to be creative and flexible) this book just shouted “you need this” at me.

“Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation Studios―into the story meetings, the postmortems, and the ‘Braintrust’ sessions where art is born. It is, at heart, a book about how to build and sustain a creative culture―but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, ‘an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible’.” – Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

The story of Pixar is linked to both the people in it and behind it as well as the business culture of making films. Let’s get the big name out of the way early … Steve Jobs. There is no question of his involvement and drive with the pre Toy Story Pixar led to the heights it has found for itself, but it seems far less straight forward than that. Jobs is well known as over-bearing and controlling, which is at odds with this creative and inclusive ‘community’ at Pixar. You could argue both ways about Jobs’ approach with Pixar, as does the book, as to whether this ultimately benefited Pixar or not, what is clear is that it did help forge a strong sense of community, creativity, and inclusivity among the Pixar teams (at all levels).

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.” – LeadershipNow

As someone who considers himself to be ‘slightly’ creative – in that I have ideas but not necessarily the talent or technical expertise to do it myself – this book helped focus the general ideas I’ve had for many years, and it’s helped me to understand my place in an organisational structure far better.

It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.” – LeadershipNow

Part of my role now includes managing a team of (currently) four highly creative, very talented individuals. I have taken a deliberate hands-off approach to (micro-)managing them, their work, and their methods. This has, I hoped, given each them room to breathe, to try new things or new tools or new approaches, and to take ownership of what they do and how they do it. My aim has been to give them the opportunities to find and expand their interests, talents, and to hopefully bring new approaches or techniques to the rest of the team, so they can grow individually and as a team.

Catmull’s book has helped me realise that this approach is not only effective, but can also be played out on a much larger, institutional scale. Large organisations do not change overnight, nor should they, but I do feel there is scope for this creative approach to management of risk vs responsibility.

There are so many stories within Catmull’s book that screamed “online learning” or “project management” that I can’t list them all. Needless to say that, as a Learning Technologist / eLearning Consultant, this book is a must read IMHO! Go get a copy, then come back and tell me what you think!!

“Every creative person can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.” – Inside The Pixar Braintrust

As further reading to Catmull’s book, and the creative way of managing yourself or a team, this article is well worth a read too: ‘Think like Pixar: 7 lessons from the studio’s creative culture

Image source: David Hopkins

  • The first real impact the book had was the ‘story’ around the table in the meeting room. As the team grew the number of people in meetings grew, with standing room only an regular occurrence. Those considered to be more ‘important’ than others gravitated to the centre of the chairs/table, those with a less perceived importance stayed on the periphery of the table/room. This went against everything Pixar was trying to achieve, with everyone involved able to have equal input and equal importance on their contribution (whilst traditional structure handled the responsibilities).

    By removing this table and changing the dynamics of the room (and how people perceived the room) the directors and executive producers would sit next to animators, admin, contractors, etc. instead of other directors, etc. This enabled a more free flowing exchange of ideas, a more relaxed and open environment for ideas to be shared.

    This is something we should all revisit in our day to day working life. How are our meetings organised, led, etc. Are we actually being clever or just putting obstacles in the way to progression?

  • Camila Leporace

    Hi, David. I started reading your book WHAT IS A LEARNING TECHNOLOGIST a few days ago, after looking for titles related to education and technology for Kindle. As soon as I started reading it I felt like I should talk to you. I’m a journalist from Brazil and I’ve been working with digital media since 2005. In 2007, I started getting involved in innovative projects related to the educational field. The more I study, the more I understand how I can fit in this multifaceted universe. Your book appeared as a great contribution for my professional moment. I feel like I need to hear from people like you. Please let me know if I can reach you by e-mail or maybe Skype sometime. Thank you very much in advance. Congratulations for your incredible work and fantastic book.

    • Hi Camila. I’ll drop you an email, I’d be happy to connect and chat through our shared interests.

  • Hey David, I think you’d be very interested in reading this interview with Ed Catmull, which builds on the messages in the book:
    My key takeaway is that Pixar isn’t afraid to do re-work. In fact, they see it as the driver of their creativity.

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