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creativity-inc- book-summary

Creativity Inc Book Summary – Ed Catmull

What you will learn from reading Creativity Inc:

– How Pixar has developed and maintained a creative culture.

– Why teams comes first then ideas.

– How generic advice around creativity and repeating ideas is destroying creativity.   

Creativity Inc Book Summary:

This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving.

This takes you through Ed Catmulls worldview and approach to tackling problems he also talks about his existential angst once Pixar was successful using this fantastic analogy – I’d spent two decades building a train and laying its track. Now, the thought of merely driving it struck me as a far less interesting task.

This book is Catmulls’ Legacy!


Pixar pro-actively looks for problems:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. 

Ed Catmull on Steve Jobs – The underlying logic of his reasoning shook me: We were going to screw up, it was inevitable. And we didn’t know when or how. We had to prepare, then, for an unknown problem—a hidden problem.

Others argue that companies go off the rails because of unreasonable growth or profitability expectations, which force them into poor short-term decisions. But Ed believes the deeper issue is that the leaders of these companies were not attuned to the fact that there were problems they could not see. And because they weren’t aware of these blind spots, they assumed that the problems didn’t exist.


Empower your people:

Pixar starts from the presumption that their people are talented and want to contribute. They accept that, their company is stifling their talent in myriad unseen ways. So they try to identify those impediments and fix them. 

The fact is, giving a ton of freedom to highly self-motivated people has enabled Pixar to make some significant technological leaps in a short time.

Words from Ed:

“The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative—whatever form that creativity takes—and that to encourage such development is a noble thing. 

I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. 

There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.”

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. 


The Problem Assembly Line:

Though Pixar didn’t rely on a traditional assembly line—that is, with conveyor belts connecting each work station—the making of a film happened in order, with each team passing the product, or idea, off to the next, who pushed it further down the line. To ensure quality, I believed, any person on any team needed to be able to identify a problem and, in effect, pull the cord to stop the line.

Deming’s approach—and Toyota’s, too—gave ownership of and responsibility for a product’s quality to the people who were most involved in its creation. Instead of merely repeating an action, workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and—this next element seemed particularly important to me—feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken. This resulted in continuous improvement, driving out flaws and improving quality.


Problems are multi-faceted:

This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise—and they always do—disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavor. 


To Solve Hard problems you need a group:

This tension between the individual’s personal creative contribution and the leverage of the group is a dynamic that exists in all creative environments, but this would be my first taste of it. 

My willingness to do this reflected my worldview, forged in academia, that any hard problem should have many good minds simultaneously trying to solve it.


How to learn faster:

Ed “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.” 

The lesson of ARPA had lodged inside Eds’ brain: When faced with a challenge, get smarter.


Avoid Generic Advice:

These books were stocked with catchy phrases like “Dare to fail!” or “Follow people and people will follow you!” or “Focus, focus, focus!” (This last one was a particular favourite piece of non advice. When people hear it, they nod their heads in agreement as if a great truth has been presented, not realising that they’ve been diverted from addressing the far harder problem: deciding what it is that they should be focusing on. 

On Steve Jobs Behaviour:

His method for taking the measure of a room was saying something definitive and outrageous—“These charts are bullshit!” or “This deal is crap!”—and watching people react.  

If you were brave enough to come back at him, he often respected it—poking at you, then registering your response, was his way of deducing what you thought and whether you had the guts to champion it.  

Watching him reminded me of a principle of engineering: Sending out a sharp impulse—like a dolphin uses echolocation to determine the location of a school of fish—can teach you crucial things about your environment. Steve used aggressive interplay as a kind of biological sonar. It was how he sized up the world. 

Whenever offering a note, he always began the same way: “I’m not really a filmmaker, so you can ignore everything I say….” Then he would proceed, with startling efficiency, to diagnose the problem precisely. Steve focused on the problem itself, not the filmmakers, which made his critiques all the more powerful. 

Steven Job believed rules didn’t apply to him but focusing on this is to miss something important. He recognised that many rules were in fact arbitrary. Yes, he tested boundaries and crossed the line at times. As a behavioural trait, that can be seen as antisocial—or if it happens to change the world, it can earn you the label “visionary.”


Teams before Ideas:

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. 

The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. 

To Ed, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. 

Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people. 

This is true of products in general; the iPhone, for example, is not a singular idea—there is a mindboggling depth to the hardware and software that supports it. Yet too often, we see a single object and think of it as an island that exists apart and unto itself. 


Leaders need to understand situational dynamics:

When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realised that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.

Leadership also means paying close attention to the ever-changing dynamics in the workplace. For example, when our younger employees—those without families—work longer hours than those who are parents, we must be mindful not to compare the output of these two groups without being mindful of the context. 


Repeating ideas isn’t acting on them:

“Story Is King” differentiated us, we thought, not just because we said it but also because we believed it and acted accordingly. 

This was a reminder of something that sounds obvious but isn’t: Merely repeating ideas means nothing. You must act—and think—accordingly. 

Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless. Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.

When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, which migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning.

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

Great metaphor that explains this:

Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is “Trust the Process” or “Story Is King”—a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand for so much more.  

The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often, we grab the handle and—without realising it—walk off without the suitcase. 

What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.  

Once you’re aware of the suitcase/handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere. People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning. Advertisers look for words that imply a product’s value and use that as a substitute for value itself. 


Reframing honesty:

One way to do that is to replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor. Candor is forthrightness or frankness—not so different from honesty, really. 


Creativity, Group Dynamics and Candor:

Group Dynamics:

Societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions.  

The more people there are in the room, the more pressure there is to perform well. 

Our brains go into overdrive when presenting something we are attached to, reading all of the subtexts and fighting off the perceived threats to what we’ve built. When so much is on the line, the barriers to truly candid discussions are formidable. 

Solution – Separate your ideas from yourself:

The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offence when they are challenged. It’s the same with ideas. Ideas not the idea maker is under attack. 

Creativity and Candor:

But, creativity has to start somewhere, and Pixar are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul. 

Examples in Pixar include people who don’t realise that much of what they think is visible on screen is, in fact, only visible in their own head. Or maybe the ideas presented in the reels don’t work and won’t ever work, and the only path forward is to blow something up or start over. No matter what, the process of coming to clarity takes patience and candor. 


Reframing group debates:

The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.

A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion—and ultimately doesn’t work). 

Sometimes you talk about the problems in fifty different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do it.’  

Instead of saying, ‘The writing in this scene isn’t good enough,’ you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting those lines?’ It’s more of a challenge. ‘Isn’t this what you want? I want that too!’ ” 

In an unhealthy culture, each group believes that if their objectives trump the goals of the other groups, the company will be better off. In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognise the importance of balancing competing desires—they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win.


Ideas and Dealing with Feedback

Key Insight – Initial ideas are Ugly Babies:

ORIGINALITY IS FRAGILE. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films “ugly babies.” They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to 

Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new. 


Creation is the goal not the process:

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal. 

I see this over and over again in other companies: A subversion takes place in which streamlining the process or increasing production supplants the ultimate goal, with each person or group thinking they’re doing the right thing—when, in fact, they have strayed off course.  

When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas—our ugly babies—aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature. They are abandoned or never conceived of in the first place. 


Feeding the Beast:

When it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end. 


Critics and negative feedback:

Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow. 

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.


Ideas need stress test:

I know some people who like to keep their gem completely to themselves while they polish it. But allowing this kind of behavior isn’t protection. In fact, it can be the opposite: a failure to protect your employees from themselves. Because if history is any guide, some are diligently trying to polish a brick. 


Stop hanging on to the things that work:

Self-interest guides opposition to change, but lack of self-awareness fuels it even more. Once you master any system, you typically become blind to its flaws; even if you can see them, they appear far too complex and intertwined to consider changing.

People want to hang on to things that work—stories that work, methods that work, strategies that work. You figure something out, it works, so you keep doing it—this is what an organisation that is committed to learning does. And as we become successful, our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change. 


Learning from the past doesn’t work if you’re looking at it the wrong way:

There is a kind of symmetry between looking forward and backward, though we seldom think of it that way. We know that in plotting our next move, we are selecting paths into the future, analysing the best available information and deciding on a route forward. But we are usually not aware that when we look back in time, our penchant for pattern-making leads us to be selective about which memories have meaning. And we do not always make the right selections.

Because it is our nature to attach great significance to the patterns we witness, we ignore the things we cannot see and make deductions and predictions accordingly. 

As we try to learn from the past, we form patterns of thinking based on our experiences, not realising that the things that happened have an unfair advantage over the things that didn’t. In other words, we can’t see the alternatives that might well have happened if not for some small chance event. 


Pixars Culture:

Pixar’s hiring:

Everyone says they want to hire excellent people, but in truth we don’t really know, at first, who will rise up to make a difference. I believe in putting in place a framework for finding potential, then nurturing talent and excellence, believing that many will rise, while knowing that not all will. 


Self preservation, hierarchy and organisational conflicts:

Role-playing to the boss:

The phenomenon I’m describing, rooted so firmly in that primal human drive for self-preservation, probably doesn’t sound surprising: We all know that people bring their best selves to interactions with their bosses and save their lesser moments for their peers, spouses, or therapists. And yet, so many managers aren’t aware of it when it’s happening (perhaps because they enjoy being deferred to). 

Over emphasis on hierarchy:

Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order. Thus, they focus their energies on managing upward while treating people beneath them on the organizational chart poorly. The people I have seen do this seem to be acting on animal instinct, unaware of what they are doing. 

Scared of asking for help:

Even employees with the purest intentions may be too timid to speak up when they sense trouble. They may feel that it’s too early to involve upper-level managers, or they may assume that we are aware of the breakdowns already. Complex environments are, by definition, too complicated for any one person to grasp fully. Yet many managers, afraid of appearing to not be in control, believe that they have to know everything—or at least act like they do. 


No two brains fill in the gaps the same:

We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illusion that we have a complete picture is extraordinarily persuasive. 

The models we have of our relationships at work, with friends, in our families, and in our society are all even more complicated than our visual models. These constructs—call them personal models—shape what we perceive. But they are each unique to us—no one can see relationships quite the way we do. If only we could remember that! 


Some of Pixars tools for getting into a different frame of mind. 

Dailies, or Solving Problems Together  

Research Trips  

The Power of Limits  

Integrating Technology and Art  

Short Experiments  

Learning to See  


Continuing to Learn 


Artificial Limits:

The very concept of a limit implies that you can’t do everything you want—so we must think of smarter ways to work. 

In any creative endeavor, there is a long list of features and effects that you want to include to nudge it toward greatness—a very long list. At some point, though, you realise it is impossible to do everything on the list. So you set a deadline, which then forces a priority-based reordering of the list, 


We rarely see the work that something takes:

Complicating matters is that frequently, neither the film’s leaders nor its team members know the true cost of the items on the list. The director may have only the fuzziest sense, for example, of how much extra work a particular tweak to the story will require. 


Pixar Short Films Explained:

Our short films are Pixar’s way of experimenting, and we produce them in the hopes of getting exactly these kinds of glimpses. Over the years, Pixar has become known for including short films at the beginning of our feature films. 

Our shorts also create a deeper value in two key areas.  

Externally, they help us forge a bond with moviegoers, who have come to regard them as a kind of bonus—something added solely for their enjoyment.  

Internally, because everyone knows the shorts have no commercial value, the fact that we continue to make them sends a message that we care about artistry at Pixar; it reinforces and affirms our values. And that creates a feeling of goodwill that we draw on, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. 


Learning to See 

A trained artist who sees a chair, then, is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their “recognizer” function tells them what it is supposed to be. 

Ed adds an important side note: that artists have learned to employ these ways of seeing does not mean they don’t also see what we see. They do. They just see more because they’ve learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions. They’ve added some observational skills to their toolboxes. (This is why it is so frustrating that funding for arts programs in schools has been decimated. And those cuts stem from a fundamental misconception that art classes are about learning to draw. In fact, they are about learning to see.) 


Lose your voice:

It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something. As the composer Philip Glass once said, “The real issue is not how do you find your voice, but … getting rid of the damn thing.”

It was the setup—the preconceptions that preceded the problem—that needed to be faced. 


Post Mortems at Pixar:

Ed believes there are five reasons, to do postmortems. These are all direct words from Ed:

Consolidate What’s Been Learned 

While it is true that you learn the most in the midst of a project, the lessons are not generally coherent. Any individual can have a great insight but may not have the time to pass it on. Postmortems are a rare opportunity to do analysis that simply wasn’t possible in the heat of the project. 

Teach Others Who Weren’t There 

Even if everyone involved in a production understands what it taught them, the postmortem is a great way of passing on the positive and negative lessons to other people who were not on the project. 

Don’t Let Resentments Fester 

Many things that go wrong are caused by misunderstandings or screw-ups. These lead to resentments that, if left unaddressed, can fester for years. 

Use the Schedule to Force Reflection 

I favor principles that lead you to think. Postmortems—but also other activities such as Braintrust meetings and dailies—are all about getting people to think and evaluate. 

Pay It Forward 

In a postmortem, you can raise questions that should be asked on the next project. A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward. 


Ed on Creativity:

Many of us have a romantic idea about how creativity happens: A lone visionary conceives of a film or a product in a flash of insight. Then that visionary leads a team of people through hardship to finally deliver on that great promise. The truth is, this isn’t my experience at all. 

In my experience, creative people discover and realise their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself. 


Viewing personalities as different floors:

“One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” 


Driving the train vs Laying the track – a great metaphor:

And I’ve heard people refer to Pixar’s production group as a finely tuned locomotive that they would love the chance to drive. What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position—that driving the train is the way to shape their companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track. 

Would it have been easier simply to wire bonuses into employees’ direct deposit accounts? Yes. But like I always say when talking about making a movie, easy isn’t the goal. Quality is the goal. 


The Future is a direction not a destination:

My goal has never been to tell people how Pixar and Disney figured it all out but rather to show how we continue to figure it out, every hour of every day. How we persist. The future is not a destination—it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when, inevitably, we stray. 


Some Leaving Principles and thoughts:

In the process, of sapping the idea of its power. An adage worth repeating is also halfway to being irrelevant. You end up with something that is easy to say but not connected to behavior. 

When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today. 

Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions. 

Further, if there is fear in an organization, there is a reason for it—our job is (a) to find what’s causing it, (b) to understand it, and (c) to try to root it out. 

The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal—it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems. 

Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be. 

Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.