Creativity, Inc. is a simple yet thought-provoking title that connects creativity and commercialization in Ed Catmull’s recent book about Pixar. Many, from creatives to pure finance types, still see the combination of art and commerce as contradictory. But you just can’t argue with Pixar’s success. Catmull reveals how creativity can be sustained within a corporate structure by actively removing unseen organizational impediments that obstruct the creative process.
At Strategos, we call those unseen organizational impediments Orthodoxies. Orthodoxies are deeply held and widely shared conventions or beliefs about products, markets, industries or any aspect of business that can blind us to opportunities. Some examples from Pixar include:
“Assembling freelancers builds efficient and effective teams.” Toy Story was created with the entertainment industry standard for production managers which is a freelance model. Once the production managers were employees, organizationally one team under Pixar, Catmull discovered a serious underlying rift between production and creative. Creative balked at the hierarchical communication structure imposed by the production managers. Production was frustrated by being treated as second class citizens which they tried to address by controlling communication channels. The real issues were around control and communication. By discovering and addressing these issues, Pixar created truly robust teams capable of repeatedly bringing blockbuster movies to life.
“The leadership committee needs to solve problems.” This general business belief assumes that executive expertise needs to be applied not only to identifying issues but also to finding the answers. Catmull separated these two roles. The Braintrust, Pixar’s review committee, is different. The two things that make the Braintrust different than other feedback mechanisms are that (a) those giving the feedback are experienced storytellers (SMEs (subject matter experts) in corporate-speak) and (b) the committee has no authority – changes are left to the director’s discretion. In this way, the director maintains ownership of his story but benefits from the experience of others. By overturning these orthodoxies and others, Pixar has been able to sustain creativity over many years through original story telling and technical advances in digital animation.
Catmull’s goal is to build a winning culture that outlasts Pixar’s founders who include himself and John Lasseter. He constantly looks into the organization to see what the needs are. He looks at his organization almost as a customer. Strategos uses Customer Insights to understand wants and needs of customers. We learn about the customer and then distill their desires into “Help me…” or “I need…” statements. An example of a Pixar insight is:
“Help me because I’m lost.” Catmull states, “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.” He talks about even the best directors being overwhelmed by the creative process which is full of unknowns.
By understanding a need that a director would probably never articulate, Catmull has been able to build support mechanisms and processes that enable a culture of creativity.
At Strategos, we mash-up insights to get to ideas for change whether that’s change to processes or products or capabilities. We can see how mashing up a couple of the insights above could generate the idea of the Braintrust. If you overturn the Orthodoxy that leaders need to solve and look at the customer need for guidance, the Braintrust is a positive and powerful change from business as usual.
Structure doesn’t equal hierarchy. I like this picture of a leaf that is a good visual representation of an effective but non-linear structure.
The structure of an open feedback process that keeps decision-making authority with the team fosters a healthy environment for creativity. It’s a support system that doesn’t predetermine an outcome. Structure for Pixar also includes its commitment to the digital animation technology platform. Pixar invented most of the technology through perseverance and investors with patience for the long-term. Again, though, the platform doesn’t prescribe an outcome. Catmull has a great line: “When it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy.”
A key Strategos principle is “Diverge before you converge”. We discuss all sorts of possibilities with our clients, even those that are unlikely. We first ground the discussion with insights like the sampling above so that the dialogue is fact-based. The dialogue surfaces concerns but also plausible opportunities that often merit further exploration or experimentation. Break-through innovation can’t occur if ideas are judged under traditional metrics too quickly.
Catmull talks about this same concept in Chapter 7 – The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby. The need for profitable projects is the hungry beast and the fragile new idea is the ugly baby. He talks about balancing these two to ensure that the ugly baby is protected in order to grow into its full potential. He also talks about creating a safe environment where ideas can be openly discussed even if they don’t develop into marketable projects. These main concepts of patience and openness are key drivers of Pixar’s success.
Many of Catmull’s approaches align with the Strategos point-of-view. I didn’t expect such a clear overlap when I purchased the book. I was just looking for insight into the entertainment industry. Creativity, Inc. certainly delivers insight into a particular company and challenging industry but Catmull’s book also contains many transferable principles. I heartily recommend it to anyone. It’s well worth your time. It’s entertaining and instructive.