I could use any number of adjectives to describe this book. I am sure that many reviewers will. But I want to start with the one word that came to me first as I finished the last page of ‘Creativity, Inc’: honest.
It isn’t easy to steer a business the size of Pixar easily to repeated success (or the size it has grown to become – 1,100 people from the original 45) – this I can easily imagine. That Ed Catmull and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter are making it happen for not one but two companies (Disney Animation, after the merger with Disney in 2006) simultaneously, is wholly impressive.
‘Creativity Inc’ is about culture – and that’s the second word that came to my mind after I finished the book. ‘Culture’ is another nebulous word, much like ‘creativity’ itself, which Catmull admits to consciously steering away from because of the subjectivity inherent in the term. The biggest lesson that any business leader or management team should take away from this book is that you can make or break a business thanks to the culture you foster in it. It sounds almost too simple to be taken seriously but understanding how Pixar’s success can be attributed largely to this will help you understand why, if you aren’t convinced already. ‘Culture’ means a lot of things, but with regard to Pixar specifically it means engendering a culture of experimentation (interestingly, ‘innovation’ was hardly used in the book), encouraging a fear of failure and a willingness to set ego aside and trust people, and supporting people to fix their mistakes as much as they are allowed to make them. When one of Pixar’s movies was almost lost forever thanks to a delete button wiping the hard drive, then followed by other Black Swan-type occurrences that couldn’t have been foreseen, I was struck by how the author mentions that finding and punishing the culprit was never a priority.
An admission of how big a part randomness has to play in life consequently comes through as something Ed Catmull really believes in. As a result you understand why he advocates humility as a highly valuable quality in managers – have the grace to know that your success can’t always be replicated just as you can’t control failure, because there are things that will happen that you simply don’t know about, despite trying your best to control the outcome in both situations. He calls this ‘the Hidden’.
Management books are a dime a dozen these days. It’s funny how as the world becomes more digitized, people rush in to provide advice on how to deal with the influx of information. But very few speak about the human story in a business context. How do I make sure my company is the place the most talented people I have constantly want to work for? (I have immense respect for Pixar’s philosophy of not wanting to tie employees in to contracts as it is counterproductive). How do I help people do their best work, because that’s how my company will succeed? How can my employees help me solve business problems so they feel more invested in it? (Pixar’s Notes Day and Braintrust feedback sessions are great examples of this).
There is lots in this book that startups will recognise: Pixar’s ‘dailies’ evoke daily stand-ups, for example. Also, Catmull’s narration of trying to protect the Walt Disney philosophy of ‘telling us how he did it’, as well as a look into his early days with Alvy Ray Smith at the New York Institute of Technology trying to change the outlook of the computer graphics community by sharing their work with the outside world where earlier members ‘held their discoveries close to their vests’, is reminiscent of how companies like Makeshift and Undercurrent today blog about their latest projects, as well as places like the Government Digital Service in the UK.
Another big part of this book is Steve Jobs. Catmull and Lasseter had a very close working relationship with him over the course of over 25 years and the book provides a great insight into how Jobs’ own personality evolved through his relationship with Pixar. The insider’s look at how the Pixar-Disney merger came about is fascinating, as is the story of how they tried to revive Disney Animation’s falling fortunes while trying to protect Pixar’s own culture. This book also has enough stories of failure to make you feel that it isn’t just another book full of business speak. The story of how Toy Story 2 was saved from near failure is fascinating, for example.
More than anything, Catmull and Amy Wallace have written a book that throws the spotlight on the company’s people rather than one that perpetuates the myth of an individual as a leader. They root success, whether an individual’s, team’s or company’s, in the ability to constantly be self-aware in the pursuit of creating an environment that people don’t just want to work in but live in day after day after day.
It’s an entertaining read for anyone, but essential for anyone who has or ever wants to be in a managerial role of any kind (especially human resources!) and anyone who runs a business of any kind. The Wall Street Journal’s review says that ‘Creativity, Inc’ doesn’t have clear enough lessons for the investment banking world, but in as much as I know that that world is full of adrenaline-powered people working with algorithms that can make people immense sums of money AND create an equal amount of damage (if used in error) at the touch of a button, I think that they’re the ones who can benefit from Pixar’s thinking even more. Perhaps Pixar’s lessons for Money, Inc can become their next super-successful movie!