SA LABS

Book Review: Creativity, Inc

Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

Creativity, Inc

One of my goals for the new year (I suppose you could call it a resolution if you want) is to read more. Every year I keep finding more and more fascinating sounding books, but I only get through a few and so the queue is growing at an unacceptable pace. In service of this goal, I am going to create a small write up about the books I read that I found particularly interesting. The first book I read in 2017 was Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace.

This book chronicles the history of Pixar and in particular it focuses on how Ed Catmull, John Lassiter, and Steve Jobs worked to create a culture of creativity. I picked this book for a couple of reasons, first of all I have been a big fan of Pixar ever since Toy Story was released, I find it amazing that one company can have such an incredible track record. As a side bonus, this book offers some interesting Steve Jobs stories as well, but I'll get to those in a minute.

In the beginning of the book Ed recounts his personal history and that of Pixar, I found this section very interesting. Ed was a very early pioneer in computer graphics at a time when there were little to no computer graphics, so everything was being invented as they went (Catmull-Rom Spline). It was interesting to learn how dismissive people in Hollywood were in the beginning, most people had no interest in embracing computer technology to make movies. Eventually Ed found his way to working for George Lucas building hardware and software for use in movie making, but after several years Lukas decided to sell off the division. It took many years and many potential suitors, including GM and some medical imaging companies, but eventually Lucas accepted a bid from Steve Jobs and Pixar was born.

Most of the rest of the book focuses on how Ed and the rest of the employees of Pixar created a culture that fostered creativity. He talks a lot about the challenges of creating that environment, and how difficult it can be. Even though the book is about fostering creativity in an environment that demands extreme creativity, animated storytelling, I believe that most of the ideas should be encouraged in other fields as well. In particular I find that the concepts could, and likely should be applied to managing software teams.

Some of the key take always for me were his focus on encouraging ideas from all employees. He talks about how difficult it is to form a culture where ideas can come from any employee at any level. Even if management says they are willing to hear feedback and ideas, there are psychological barriers that are hard to overcome. One quote rings particularly true to me, as I've seen it happen in many corporate environments:

If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.

What is the point of hiring smart people, we asked, if you don't empower them to fix what's broken?

He also talks about empowering employees, he uses the example of Toyota's manufacturing. In American car factories it was considered the ultimate sin to stop the assembly line, any time there was a problem the employee had to pull that car off the line quickly and keep things moving or risk being punished. However at Toyota they used a different technique, employees were encourage to look out for issues and stop the line when needed. This not only increased quality and ultimately efficiency, but it had the important side effect that employees felt empowered and because of they felt empowered they took more pride in their work. A common theme through out the book was that you should never foster a fear of failing, but instead encourage employees to take some risks, and be willing to speak up when they believe they have a better idea. (There was an interesting This American Life episode a while ago about trying to bring Toyota's manufacturing to the US.)

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won't have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

There are many, many other great ideas and themes in the book, but for me the real pay off is when he talks about what happened after Pixar was acquired by Disney. Disney animation was having a rough time, and so when Pixar was acquired it was decided that Ed Catmul would be made president of Disney Animation and John Lassiter would be chief creative officer. This gave them an opportunity to test out the theories they had been practicing at Pixar all these years.

"Disney Animation was sort of like a dog that had been beaten again and again,"

He explains how they had to dramatically change the existing culture at Disney in order to return to an environment that can foster quality storytelling and creativity. I believe the results could not be more evident. Since John and Ed have been leading Disney Animation they have produced a string of amazing films. Films which have not only been successful at the box office, but have also been critically acclaimed and are bound to join the ranks of Disney's classic films such as Snow White and Cinderella.

I really enjoyed this book, and I wish that anyone who has any sort of management role would read this and head its advice.