Creativity Inc. — Summary

Learn how to create a creative working environment

In our modern day, creativity is a growing requirement, as other jobs get increasingly outsourced by computers and robots. There is one problem with creativity, though. It implies doing things in a different way. People often fear to do things in unusual ways because they involve risk, how can they know if it is going to give the desired results?

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Studios, has confronted this dilemma time and time again. This book delivers his insights through a series of anecdotes and arguments from Catmull’s career at Pixar and Disney.

Create a working environment which fosters creativity

After realizing that a long, rectangular table created a sense of formality and hierarchy at Pixar’s meetings and thus prevented certain participants from speaking their mind, Catmull replaced it with a square one which enabled the involvement of all members, which solved the problem of a lack in participation.

Furthermore, Pixar encourages the customization of the workplace design which creates individuality and further encourages creativity. In fact, Steve Jobs built the entire Pixar complex too with well-thought-out patterns of entry and egress that. Ideas people to communicate and which encourages a sense of community.

Avoid hierarchy to improve feedback and teamwork

Feedback is crucial for a healthy business. There are always things which can be enhanced. A good way to get feedback is from employee’s feedback.

Would you give ideas about how to improve the business to your boss? Probably not. That is because hierarchy is intimidating. Most employees fear that their feedback will be ignored, or worse, that their superiors respond with disdain.

Pixar circumvented this problem by creating a feedback system which allows employees to share information freely and openly between hierarchies. Notes Day was created. Notes Day is a day in which employees can share their opinion on how to make Pixar better. No work is allowed that day. All employees have to assist.

Ed Catmull also encourages employees to feel confident in speaking to him by visiting them individually to hear their opinions and problems.

Limits and excessive control can impede progress and harm morale

When co-founders of Pixar John Lasseter and Ed Catmull arrived at Disney Animations Studios after the two companies merged, they found an interesting problem. Previous management had established an “oversight group” to keep track of the complicated and costly production of animation.

This group, however, was a hindrance to those who worked on animation. They couldn’t respond to problems without being nitpicked on every tiny decision by the oversight group. The two groups were at a constant war with each other which plummeted morale.

John and Ed after realizing this problem eliminated the oversight group. In their sight, the oversight group added nothing to the process but tension.

Inflexible plans lead to missed opportunities

After the head of human resources of Disney had come to Ed with a detailed two-year plan about how they should handle various staffing issues, he explained to her that what they needed instead was flexibility. He drew a pyramid explaining to her that what she wanted was to get to the top of the pyramid by the end of the period. He then drew a zigzag line passing through the top of the pyramid explaining that this is where Pixar could be instead.

What he wanted instead of a predefined inflexible plan, was that they remained open to readjustments on the way.

Beware of the confirmation bias

We often ignore the opinions of others when they contradict what we believe, and pick out the information which confirms what we believe. This tendency is called the confirmation bias. We have to be conscious of mental models like this to be able to deal with them. Otherwise, we may ignore important suggestions from other people or fall into other traps.

A good team is more important than ideas and processes

What is more important, people or ideas? When asking this question, Ed often received a 50/50 response from the audience. Only a few people realized the obvious, ideas come from people or a team, so obviously people and teams are more important. Hiring the right people thus is an essential element to success.

The best idea won’t help if you don’t have the people and the team to get the job done. Nearly all brilliant things are the result of a combination of ideas from many different people. In other words, it is the cooperation of great teams which ultimately results in successful products.

Moreover, diversity matters. Diversity results in more inspiration and ideas, homogeneous groups don’t foster this kind of innovation.

Management should trust employees

Scrutinizing and micromanaging employees is not the best way to foster creativity and problem-solving. It only hampers with morale and creativity. A better approach is to give employees the necessary freedom to exert what they need to do.

Pixar’s Braintrust group is a good example of autonomy. It regularly gives feedback to film-production experts about various fields. The advice is not mandatory but can be immensely helpful. There are not many things which escape Braintrust, aka. “the grand eye of Sauron.” Braintrust is not there to criticize, wants to help.

Fail early

Failure is a necessary step to learning. At Pixar, management allows staff to fail in the earlier stages of a project. Doing so gives them a chance to learn from their mistakes and do better in later stages where failure is expensive. More time for exploration and correction in the development phase of filmmaking is better than making those mistakes at the production phase. Similarly, companies should give their employees safe space to fail and learn.

Creativity flourishes in an environment which encourage it and enables intrinsic motivation.

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Also published on Medium.