How does creativity really work, and how can we build and maintain a creative, solutions-oriented organization? In this book, Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, brings the process to life by sharing what happens behind-the-scenes in these 2 great companies. In our Creativity Inc summary, we’ll give a synopsis of the ingredients and barriers to creativity and innovation.
The book is written in a chronological order; we’ve distilled the key ideas into 3 parts in our summary: Key milestones, Foundations and barriers to creativity,and Building a creative culture. These tips are not success formulas, but merely starting points for you to experiment with, and discover what works for you.
Part 1: Key Pixar Milestones
In the book, Catmull shares his childhood dream to be a Disney animator, and how the path of a computer scientist led him into the area of computer-animated research and innovation. He was hired by the New York Institute of Technology, Lucasfilm, then as the CEO of Pixar (which was bought by Steve Jobs, with the aim of selling imaging computers).
The book traces how Pixar clinched its first deal with Disney, leading to the creation of “Toy Story”. Notably, it had taken Catmull 20 years from the time he first crystallized his goal (in 1974) to make a computer-animated film, to the successful debut of Toy Story. In our full summary, we outline some of the key milestones, as well as the learning experiences that shaped Catmull’s philosophy, approach and insights, e.g. the importance of a conducive innovation environment, hiring the right people who’re smarter than you, etc.
Pixar’s early struggles forged its identity, and also gave Catmull his new calling – to learn what it takes to build a lasting creative culture, and build Pixar to out-live the forces that have brought down other great companies. When Pixar was sold to Disney in 2006, Catmull and John Lasseter became President and Chief Creative Officer respectively for both Disney Animation and Pixar, and successfully replicated Pixar’s approach at Disney Animation, while preserving Disney’s unique heritage. We’ll now take a quick look at some of the philosophies, tools and mechanisms behind their success.
Part 2: Foundations and Barriers to Creativity
True creativity and problem-solving require many inter-connected elements. However, there are many barriers that stand in their way:
For instance, most of us will agree that honesty, learning from mistakes and flexibility, are all essential for solving problems and creativity. Yet, we naturally avoid candour, failure, and change. Likewise, most “geniuses” discover their vision through struggles over time, getting lost and facing tremendous uncertainty; yet, most of us are uncomfortable to embark on a process without knowing the answer.
In the book, Catmull explains each of these components, using vivid stories and examples to bring them to life. Get more details on each of these 4 key components from the book or our full book summary!
Part 3: Building a Creative Culture
In this segment, we’ll outline some of the mechanisms used at Pixar to overcome the barriers to creativity. Combined, these mechanisms build candour, make it okay to make mistakes, challenge mental models and uncover truths, and tap on the brainpower of every team member.
Broadening our Viewpoints
Rather than pretend or try to know everything, it’s better to accept that we can’t. Instead, focus your attention on how to combine differing viewpoints, treating them as additive rather than competing. In the book / full summary, we elaborate on several mechanisms that Pixar uses to expand perspectives, e.g. using “Dailies” for problem-solving, embarking on research trips, setting constructive limits, combining different specializations, using small experiments, post-mortems, and learning programs etc.
In creative work, the creators must immerse themselves in the projects, yet not miss the forest for the trees. Braintrust meetings have been a valuable source of constructive feedback for Pixar directors. The meeting starts with a brief intro by the director, who then shows his work-in-progress and invites feedback. Do check out our full summary for the 2 unique features of Braintrust, or read the book for detailed walkthroughs and examples of how it works.
In science experiments, every outcome is good, as it provides data to support or disprove a hypothesis, and unexpected discoveries may emerge. It’s the same with creative experimentation. In thebook / summary, we touch on how to make the most from creative experimentation, e.g. identifying your Red Flags, learning from failures etc.
Handling Change/Randomness and Using Constructive Mental Models
In the the book, Catmull shares the tips and tools used by their Directors and Producers to stay constructive and positive despite constant changes and uncertainty. They also use familiar pictures (or mental models) to handle fear, challenges and tough decisions, with different models used by Directors & creative roles, vs Producers & logistical roles. [Get a detailed outline in our full summary.]
While Catmull and Lasseter were transforming Disney Animation, Pixar was starting to face its own crisis. After years of success, people were starting to self-censor. Meanwhile production costs were increasing, with growing external market pressures. At an offsite retreat, Pixar leaders identified the need to reduce costs by 10%. They decided to close down the office for 1 day, so everyone could jointly solve the problem. Thus, Notes Day was born. Get more details on Notes Day in our full summary, or get a copy of the book to read the full account (including detail breakdown of how they planned for and conducted the event).
Other Details in “Creativity Inc”
Stories are powerful, and this book is packed with stories that help you to experience the challenges, triumphs, and learning experiences through Catmull’s eyes. Do get our full Creativity Inc summary bundle for more details on each of the tips and ideas above.
Or, get a copy of the book for vivid, inspiring details and stories, including:
• Behind-the-scenes processes, struggles and fixes for movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Tangled, Ratatuoille, Bolt etc;
• Deliberations and decisions that give us a glimpse of great minds (like Jobs, Lasseter, Lucas, Catmull etc.) at work;
• The challenges and steps taken to manage Pixar and Disney Animation after the 2006 merger; and
• An afterword about Steve Jobs and a list of “starting points’’ you can use to build a creative culture.
Start building a creative and solutions-oriented organization today!