Disney/Pixar Animation post upon Steve Jobs passing.

I have found that managers often educate and enrich themselves professionally by reading non-fiction business books.  Why?  Because this allows a budding manager an opportunity to peek into the inner workings of another business to see what works and what doesn’t.  This can provide managers with insights on how to modify or change aspects of their business, and give them ways to make sometimes substantial improvements in the operation of their organization.

The book Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, provides just such an opportunity.  Creativity, Inc. is a book about how to build and manage a creative culture.  While at Pixar and Disney Animation, Ed developed methods to both encourage creativity as well as deal with the barriers to it.  This book gives fresh and sometimes unconventional ways to manage creative people working in a creative environment.  It also gives insights on how to build a successful creative team culture, as well as lots of good advice for leading teams.

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Similar to Ed at Pixar, those of us who manage developers of online learning find ourselves managing a creative process.  This creative process is assembled by team members who consider themselves to be creatives. Granted, we are not making animated features like Ed and his team did at Pixar and Disney, but the management philosophy lessons he espouses are worth repeating here.  And Ed teaches these lessons while at the same time telling the reader stories about the inner workings of Pixar.  This combination of learning and real-life examples from Pixar make for educational as well as entertaining reading.

I was so intrigued by this book that I am considering making it mandatory reading in the Distance Education Leadership Class that I teach.

I found the book’s narrative storyline particularly interesting because the story weaves “side bar” stories about Steve Jobs throughout the book, and makes a genuine effort at providing management philosophy and processes in context.   I was fascinated by the historical tidbits (like Jobs paying only five million for Pixar), and the inclusion of commentary on Jobs, which makes for good story.  Fear not, most of the real people management tips come from Ed Catmull and not Steve.  In the end, this book “gets the story right”, which was an important mantra of the leaders of Pixar.

Following are some of the ways that a manager can lead creative people and foster creativity within the work environment:

  • A manager needs to set up a hierarchical organizational structure while at the same time making sure there is a culture which promotes a communication style where any staff member can feel comfortable speaking to anyone and everyone.
  • A manager needs to create a safe environment so team members can safely take risks.  It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks.  It is the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take risks.  By doing this, managers build in the ability for the individual or team to recover.
  • A manager needs to strive to uncover the unseen and non-obvious aspects of an idea.  If they don’t, they will be ill prepared to lead when the unexpected pops up.  “It is a fact of life, though a confounding one, that focusing on something can make it more difficult to see.  The goal is to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision.”
  • A manager needs to create an environment that fosters good ideas.  They do this by making the work environment safe for their team, and by emphasizing trust in their people even when team members make mistakes.  According to Catmull, uncertainty and failure are necessary parts of the creative process and through them, teams can create excellent work.
  • Managers need to replace “be honest” with “speak with candor”.  His point here is that honesty can be a loaded concept–especially when it makes sense to keep your mouth shut!  What Pixar did was set up a process to encourage candor.  This began with the concept of a no authority brain-trust made up of experienced story tellers and directors.  The book tells an in depth story of how the Pixar brain trust worked.  In essence, the brain-trust eliminated the power relationship between members of the team by making sure the brain trust had no authority to say ” do this or else”.   This gave people freedom to make alternative suggestions and work in true collaboration, instead of blindly following the authority.   This process is similar to a peer review in academia.
  • Catmull felt that candor is an absolute necessity in the creative process, and can be encouraged by the use of constructive notes.  Here are Ed’s rules for a constructive note:

A good note is specific
A good note is timely
A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, or what isn’t clear
In a good note, no demands are made

“Feeding the beast while nurturing the baby” is a concept that struck me more than any other.  The reality of life is that companies have payrolls and financial goals to meet.  When a company has success, its size increases. An infrastructure needs to be created to support the size and produce and sell more “product” (“feeding the beast”). The difficulty is that, with the increase in size, quality can often be negatively impacted.  Ed shows the value and importance of creating a balance between the “beast and the baby”.

Managers, here are some of Catmull’s suggestions for finding balance between running an efficient operation while maintaining product quality:

  • Conflict should be dealt with by not allowing any one department to dominate.  In other words, the people keeping products on-time and on budget should not run over those producing the product, and those producing the product should not have free reign.
  • Management must protect new programs.   Ed tells about the support he had to give a new summer intern program to make it work.  He says that reluctance to change means that management needs to step in and assist in protecting new programs.

When discussing change, Ed takes a realistic view.  He embraces change while also acknowledging that luck and general random events can impact the direction and choices that any individual, manager, team or company make.

Ed described innovations in process and technology at Pixar to help to illustrate how the team solved problems and enhanced output, communication and quality by using the examples of the ability to sketch and narrate already completed animated sequences.  Pixar used their production of short animated films as a way to test new concepts, work on issues (like animating humans) and test new talent.  These often million dollar productions brought in no revenue for Pixar, yet served to grow the company, as did the internship initiative.  Another innovation that Ed used was to insist that everyone learn to draw so as to be able to control right and left brain and improve their ability to understand any inherent bias they might have.

Conducting reviews and feedback after a project is completed (a postmortem) is universally accepted as good methodology within a company-wide continuous improvement initiative.  Here are Ed’s five reasons for doing postmortems.

  1.  It consolidates project learning
  2.  It teaches others who were not involved
  3.  It keeps resentments from festering
  4.  It forces reflection
  5.  It “pays it forward”

It is all about creating a culture of continuous learning, and an environment where creativity flourishes.

This book is a good read because of the author’s wisdom, illustrated through the use of storytelling from his years of experience as a manager of creative individuals and teams.  I also appreciated that the final chapter, “Starting Points” provided a summary of his wisdom for managers.  This entire book provides valuable insights for leaders who manage creative people.

The book ends as it began with a story of speeches given at Pixar at a Steve Job memorial gathering.  Steve was the person who had saved Pixar with minimal hands-on involvement in day to day activity.  It was like Ed was saying that Pixar got the best sides of Steve Jobs: his business savvy, and executive creative judgment without his legendary day-to-day tinkering into details.

Photo Credit: Disney • Pixar

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