Catmull: Creativity, Inc.

What Ed Catmull is really doing in his book „Creativity Inc.“ is to provide a way how to deal with creative minds. Within Pixar he establishes structures, that help creative ideas and people survive despite criticism and changes. Becoming the president of Pixar, Catmull would devote himself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.“ The book is in his words „an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.“


We must acknowledge the random events that went our way, because acknowledging our good fortune – and not telling ourselves that everything we did was some stroke of genius – lets us make more realistic assessments and decisions. The existence of luck also reminds us that our activities are less repeatable. Since change is inevitable, the question is: Do you act to stop it and try to protect yourself from it, or do you become the master of change by accepting it and being open to it? My view, of course, ist hat working with change is what creativity is about. (166)

Most of the parts in the book just speak for themselves. To me there are four major areas adressed in the book:

1. Don’t be afraid to hire the best people

Catmull describes that he needed to attract the sharpest minds to build his company; for this he needed to put his own insecurities away. The lesson he had learned at ARPA had lodged in his brain: „When faced with a challenge, get smarter.“ If you achieve that, you can build a great company with great individuals, that solve the problems: „If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brillant team, the will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.“

But Catmull also gives a description, what the best people are. Creativity demands that we travel paths that lead „to who-knows-where“, says Catmull. „That requires us to step up to the boundary of what we know and what we don’t know. While we all have the potential to be creative, some people hang back, while others forge ahead. (…) Those with superior talent and the ability to marshal the energies of others have learned from experience that there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.“

2. Create a culture that makes everyone contribute

The second important task is the setting of an environment, where creativity can soar. In that environment noone has to be afraid of admitting failures and everyone is demanded to speak up.

Why? Because behind ideas are people. „ Yet too often, we see a single object and think of it as an island that exists apart and unto itself“, writes Catmull. Pixar was designed to be a company, that would never settle: „That didn’t mean we wouldn’t mistakes. Mistakes are part of creativity. But when we did, we would strive to face them without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.“

For the Pixar president „it is natural for people to fear that such an inherently critical environment will feel threatening and unpleasant, like a trip to the dentist“:

„The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive. 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 i fit is only an idea that fuels the discussion – and ultimatively doesn’t work).“

3. Ownership over contracts

One of the most important features of a creative and motivating environment is individual ownerships. Catmull recalls how he first came across this, when he was reading about Toyota: „The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line“, is what he took away.

Toyota changed the assembly line work forever by putting people over processes. Also at Pixar there was a time, when this didn’t work. Managememt forgot „that ,the process’ has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It is just a tool – a framework. We needed to take more responsibility and ownership of our own work, our need for self-discipline, and our goals.“

Catmull could put his belief – „people over processes“ to test, when he took over Disney’s interactive studio. There he met a crew that wanted to succeed, but was „afraid of pouring their hearts into something that wasn’t going to succeed. You could feel that fear“ – „everyone was so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings that they held back. They had to learn that they weren’t attacking the person, they were attacking the project.

In particular, John and I stressed that no one at Disney needed to wait for permission to come up with solutions. What ist he point of hiring smart people, we asked, if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken? (264)

4. Transparency

Transparency isn’t a rather minor aspect of the book, but I think communication is crucial and I really share Catmull’s observations. In fact, if you try to hide information, people will start to reveal internal information. If you trust them, they will be trustworthy:

 „The people at Pixar have been extremely good at keeping secrets, which is crucial in a business whose profits depend on strategic release of ideas or products when they are ready and not before. Since making movies is such a messy process, we need to be able to talk candidly, among ourselves, about the mess without having it shared outside the company. By sharing problems and sensitive issues with employees, we make them partners and partowners in our culture, and they do not want to let each other down.“

Summary: It is a brillant book and everyone working in a company that applies these measurements can consider themselves happy. The biggest take-away is probably, that is the people that make a company succeed, no matter how good the processes applied are – at least in creative industries. „It’s a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions“. And make sure everyone wants to contribute, even if it is admitting errors: „Telling the truth is difficult, but inside a creative company, it is the only way to ensure excellence, writes Catmull.

Extra #1: In „Creativity Inc.“ Catmull offers a great insight, what great graphic artists are made of. Example: „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 tendancy to jump to conclusions.“

Extra #2: One chapter is dedicated to the important tool of post-mortems. Here are five headlines about the aims of every post-mortem at Pixar / Disney:

  1. consolidate what’s been learned
  2. teach others who weren’t there
  3. don’t let resentments fester
  4. use the schedule for force reflection
  5. pay it forward

„Creativity, Inc.“ from Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. Published in 2014 by Random House / Bantam Press. €16,80.



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