Likely every kid (or adult, for that matter) who’s seen a Disney movie has ended up wanting to work there. Ed Catmull actually got to do it—and in the process, he wrote a heck of an interesting business book, “Creativity, Inc.”
Whether you’ve got kids or have been a fan since the days of Luxo Jr. (one of Pixar’s first short films), chances are you’ve heard of Pixar, the animation company that pioneered the use of computers. In the process, the company ended up revitalizing the animated movie industry as a whole—eventually even being bought by Disney itself and running the Disney Animation department (though, as Catmull points out, the organizations remain separate). The name most people associate with Pixar is that of creative storytelling genius John Lasseter, but Catmull is one of the Pixar founders, and is now the one who runs both Disney and Pixar from the business side.
At the same time, Catmull didn’t start out a business guy; he was a pioneer in computer graphics research who accidentally ended up running an animation company in pursuit of his goal to make movies animated by computer. He writes in “Creativity, Inc.” about how he has read many business books to try to find out how to run the company better, but how they’ve all failed him, sometimes by trying to make things too simple. (Gasp!)
Like Finding Nemo, which features two parallel stories of the dad fish and the son fish searching for each other, “Creativity, Inc.” is really two books: The story of Pixar (including a heavy dose of What Working With Steve Jobs Was Really Like), and the business book Catmull was trying to find for himself. And while the business book is at its core about managing in a creative industry, in reality it can be applied to any industry. Who hasn’t been told, after all, that their company needed to be more innovative and creative? The whole point of the book is how to manage people without stifling their creativity. And his description of “The Hungry Beast,” the pressure to develop a viable revenue stream to support the company, should resonate in practically any industry.
One of the book’s biggest concepts (and a theme we return to on this blog now and again) is how you must not fear failure in order to come up with innovative ideas. Pixar goes one step further, Catmull writes, quoting director Andrew Stanton. “Fail early and fail fast” and “Be wrong as fast as you can,” he writes—notions that he finds so important that he references them three times in the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject of failure and how fear of failure can stifle the creative process. Stanton isn’t the only Pixar employee to be quoted; Catmull is generous with giving credit to his coworkers for their insights.
Catmull’s embrace of failure applies to himself as well; he isn’t shy about talking about his own failures and those of Pixar and then Disney, such as some of the problems with The Princess and the Frog, which received mixed reviews and disappointing earnings. And to the extent that Pixar has avoided the “innovator’s dilemma” of maintaining its existing business without taking advantage of innovation, it’s because he was aware of the problem and talks throughout the book about steps he’s taken to prevent it.
Catmull also writes about a number of the techniques Pixar uses to nurture and enhance creativity in its employees, ranging from its Pixar University that offers employees classes in all sorts of things that may or may not be related to their job, to the research trips employees take to ensure that the films have a sense of verisimilitude. The Princess and the Frog may have had its problems, but ensuring that the architecture of New Orleans looked right wasn’t one of them. Similarly, trips to colleges helped provide the sight gags that made Monsters University so much fun. He also stresses the importance of “candor,” and goes on for two pages about the distinction between “candor” and “honesty” in terms of getting useful feedback.
There are so many great management nuggets in this book about how to nurture creativity that it’s hard to summarize all of them. As it turns out, the last chapter consists of many of them in bullet form, but without reading them in situ with the stories that created them, it’s not the same; it’s the destination without the journey. (And the list isn’t complete; “fail fast,” for example, isn’t included in that chapter.) On the other hand, it keeps your copy of the book from having a corner of every other page folded over.
In the same way that the kids who see a Disney movie want to work there, Catmull wrote a book about Pixar that’s going to make adults want to work there—or, at least, make their own workplace more like it. Maybe you should have your boss read it first.
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