Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of Inspiration (2014) by Ed Catmull is a great examination of how creativity works and can be supported by culture. While the book is ostensibly the story of Pixar—how it was created, preserved, and how it succeeded—the book is really about creating a workplace culture that supports creativity.
It’s an interesting story of how innovation came alive in the Pixar world. Common innovations in Japanese manufacturing, for example, were utilized such as “total quality control” where the responsibility for the quality of a product were widely distributed.
The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that his was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers … Being on the lookout for problems, I realized was not the same as seeing problems. (63)
Catmull’s insight really resonates with me. As a teacher, I fell victim to the squeaky wheel syndrome—paying the most attention to the students who needed it. As a principal, it was the teacher or parent who demanded the attention. The tyranny of the urgent. As a reactionary leader, I can lost track of what’s really needed. If we only pay attention to the loudest voice, we fail to listen to the true problems.
Pixar developed a sustainable creative culture which promulgated two principles: “Story is King,” and “Trust the Process.” Catmull outlines how they used those principles to shape the company’s culture and protect their products. One of their innovations was the “Braintrust,” a device designed to generate honest feedback and protected no one. As he points out, “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process” (91). The Braintrust is designed to give direction. However, Catmull points out why so many people struggle with feedback on their creative projects, “You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged” (94). So the Pixar system gives honest feedback and the culture supports it.
In the next section, Catmull discusses “uncoupling” fear and failure. In other words, creating a culture where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes. He also discusses a culture which welcomes disagreement but believes everyone should be heard and that the culture shouldn’t be about winning at all costs.
The book examines the creative culture of Pixar from a number of different angles. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone interested in creating a sustainable creativity culture in a classroom, on a team, or in a company.