After hearing recommendations for Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Innovation in a handful of places, I decided to give the book a try. Catmull describes his journey from aspiring animator to computer scientist to co-founder and president of Pixar. He and Wallace offer lessons for how to foster creativity in an organization and how to reliably produce quality products. I enjoyed reading the book and learning more about how Pixar grew despite making movies that required tens of thousands of person-weeks to produce.
Technical expertise promotes creativity
Catmull’s experience shows how developing expertise in a technical subject opens the door to innovative ideas. He pioneered many important ideas in computer animation because he had the requisite technical knowledge to develop ideas no one else had been able to implement. Without his knowledge of physics, algorithms, and software, it’s unlikely he would have come up with the ideas that he did. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge within your field or combining that knowledge with insights from other disciplines can help you come up with creative ideas.
Focus on quality and opportunities. Don’t be stubborn and stick with a failing plan or team.
Although Catmull had dreamed of creating the first feature-length computer-animated film, Pixar started out as a hardware company. To show off some of their hardware’s capabilities, the company made short demonstrations at conferences. The hardware business ultimately faltered. But out of that failure grew a small animation department that started making shorts for other companies and eventually was able to strike a deal with Disney to make Toy Story. Rather than staying the course and trying to sell hardware, Pixar’s leadership recognized that they could pivot and possibly succeed making films.
Throughout the book, Catmull and Wallace describe examples in which the company spent a lot of money on a project or invested a lot of time in a potential leader only to achieve disappointing results. Instead of doubling down on these decisions, Catmull and Pixar’s leadership learned to cut their losses. Through these experiences, they realized that a good team can come up with lots of good ideas. But the wrong team cannot convert on a valuable idea. By focusing on quality, avoiding the sunk-cost fallacy, and building around strong core teams, Pixar flourished.
My favorite practical idea from the book—and one I would like to try in my organization—is Notes Day. Seeking to reduce the amount of time it took to create a feature-length movie, Catmull proposed a day for employees not to work on their day-to-day work but instead propose and discuss practical ideas for how to improve efficiency. Nearly every employee participated and teams produced hundreds of ideas about how to make the company work better.
Notes Day wasn’t an ordinary time to fill in a survey a wonder if any of your feedback would be read or incorporated. After each Notes Day session, employees wrote down which ideas were best and who would be the best person to pitch the idea to management. Immediately following Notes Day, these individuals pitched their ideas to management. Catmull and the other leaders at Pixar then worked on giving people the resources and direction to implement these changes. Notes Day is a lovely example of how a company can improve flow, get feedback, and create a learning culture à la the Three Ways of The DevOps Handbook.
Part memoir, part business book, Creativity, Inc. is a fun read with many useful ideas for how to enable organizations to do creative work.