It’s not about toys – it’s about people

What can the creators of Buzz, Woody, Nemo and Lightning McQueen teach us about business? Plenty.

I chose to read Creativity, Inc. based upon a strong recommendation from a friend of mine, but also because I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s movies. And I wasn’t disappointed – it’s fun to read some of the cool Pixar tales from someone who was there (Ed Catmull, co-founder and current President) . We learn that Toy Story was the culmination of a more than 20 year obsession to create the first fully computer-animated movie…we find out that Toy Story 2 was an absolute train wreck before they fired the director and almost started again…that Monsters, Inc. was originally to be about an accountant whose childhood drawings come alive. The book is chock full of Pixar backstories.

But that’s not what this book is about.

At its core, Creativity, Inc. is not about creating movies – it’s about creating great companies. Companies that can survive a crisis and come out stronger on the other side. Companies that can remain true to their core values even as they expand a hundred times over. Companies that can balance the desire to be bold, daring and innovating with the need to stay on schedule and be within budget. Creativity, Inc. is the story of how Pixar has manages to stay innovative, centered and resilient.

So…how do they do it? Well, here are three concepts that stood out to me.

Humility

“All the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time terrible.” I know this seems hard to believe, but Catmull relates many, many instances of how Pixar nurtured “bad” stories into great ones. So how does a terrible movie get turned into a brilliant movie? The writers and directors are humble enough to realize that their original idea (their “ugly baby” as Catmull calls it) is probably deeply flawed and needs the help of a team to make it awesome. One process for doing this at Pixar is a peer review called the Braintrust where directors lay out their fledgling ideas and get candid feedback from other experienced writers and directors. The author sums up Braintrust meetings as “frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love.” Maintaining an open and humble attitude toward a deeply personal idea that you’re passionate about isn’t easy – but it’s essential to creating exceptional work.

Recovery

“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” Many of the stories that I found intriguing were the failures, the tough times, the outright catastrophes that occurred during the making of these movies and how Pixar people responded in the midst of crisis. Pixar came to view these challenges as just part of the package that comes along with being innovative and trying new things. In fact, if a movie went too smoothly, they worried that they weren’t being inventive enough! At Pixar they try to eliminate the fear of making mistakes…the fear of losing control. How do they combat this fear? A culture of trust. “Trust is the best tool for driving out fear.” Each employee at Pixar is encouraged to innovate, provide input and fix problems. Which brings me to…

People

“Find, develop, and support good people, and then in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.” I absolutely LOVED the fact that Catmull didn’t spout trite management principles throughout this book and make everything seem so easy. He acknowledges that being part of a company or a team is messy, confusing, difficult and unpredictable. Why is that? Because companies and teams are made up of people! And we all are messy, confusing, difficult and unpredictable at times. But despite all of our many shortcomings, Pixar realizes that clamping down and micromanaging the heck out of people is NOT the way to create great work. Trusting good people to do good work IS.

Over and over again, Catmull stresses the importance of finding and teaching and trusting the people that we work with. It’s the whole idea of working within a community that I find so compelling – and it’s probably a big reason why I couldn’t put this book down. If you’re in an industry that values creativity and you’re wondering how to build a team that can produce good results time and time again, Creativity, Inc. should most definitely be on your list.

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