What management brings to creativity and vice versa: a book review of Creativity Inc.

I would have never read Creativity Inc. by Pixar founder Ed Catmull hadn’t it been for my boss and her knowledge of two of my passions: books and creativity / innovation.

The book didn’t appeal to me at first. After all, what could I learn from an animation tycoon that would be useful in my daily job? I am neither working in the movie or animation business, and I am not even in a place where creativity is a vital necessity – I work for government.

Still I hung in there and was soon rewarded with some deep insights about what it means to be a true leader and how to sustain creativity in any business, not just the animation industry. Here are some of the passages which made me think hard about what really lies behind leadership and creativity. Many of those resonated with my personal opinions on the subject, which sometimes makes me feel like an alien in the world of government institutions.

Coming up with new ideas and protecting them 

Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. (p. 75)

Ed Catmull recalls an old debate in the creative industry akin to the chicken and egg question: what comes first, ideas or people? Since ideas don’t float around us unless people have actually come up with them, he believes <strong>people are what matters most. So if you recruit the right people and put them in the right environment, ideas will follow suit. This sounds easy, but of course, it’s the how to recruit the right people and the how to set up the right environment that soon becomes the cornerstone of any organisation’s effort to generate sustained creativity or innovation.

Trust is a big part of that conducive environment which Catmull has attempted to create – quite successfully – at Pixar. His leadership lesson here is:

Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come. (p. 125)

Again, this sounds deceitfully simple. Being patient in times where external pressures force us to speed up our work is though. Being authentic is yet another challenge. Indeed, many leaders are authentic in the sense that they are themselves, but at their core they are not good leaders (e.g. the control freaks), so how to remain true to the spirit of leadership? And consistency too  is difficult to implement and requires that you have a clear long-term goal and plan to pursue.

What are the qualities of a good leader which in turn will generate a climate of creativity? Catmull mentions three critical aspects:

  • a culture of trial and error, which allows people to make mistake and also asks them to find fixes or solutions;
  • a constant balancing act between competing desires or organisational needs;
  • a recognition that change is the only constant, and that values are more important than goals.

I think Catmull has managed to integrate the wisdom (and creativity) of the crowds into his leadership style, and that’s quite unique, at least in my experience. He believes that if we allow more people to solve problems without permission and if we tolerate their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed.

Building and sustaining a creative environment 

Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional, but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional.” (p. 215)

In the second part of the book, Catmull shares tips on <strong>how to create an environment where creativity strives and becomes part of the organisation’s DNA. Here are the 8 points he shares from his experience at Pixar, and then at Disney Animation:

  1. organise daily meetings to solve problems together
  2. do research trips
  3. set limits as they drive creativity
  4. integrate technology and art
  5. do short experiments (“fail fast, fail often”)
  6. learn to see (drawing is about seeing the right things, not drawing them)
  7. do postmortems (lessons learnt)
  8. continue to learn.

With the exception of points 3 and 6 I already have naturally embedded these practices into my daily work routine and that of my team or co-workers whenever I can. It’s not easy, and the only way for this to slowly penetrate the organisational fabric is to lead by example.

Catmull shares several metaphors about what creative leadership is and what it looks like. I really liked one of these metaphors. He mentions that many people compare leadership with driving a train (George Lucas did so when Catmull worked for him at LucasFilm). But driving the train doesn’t set its course, it’s setting the tracks that does. Managers and leaders are often too busy driving the train but haven’t put enough effort into setting the tracks in the right direction.

This reminds me of my work on delivering strategies: at least 50% of the work goes into the research part, and whenever I mention this people think I’m slightly crazy. I’m happy that Catmull’s insights confirm my personal intuition, although there are always different paths to achieve the same objective. I would like to leave you with another of Catmull’s insights: he insists that the real challenge is to move away from the idea of fixing problems the right way to fixing the problems.

Too often we are blinded by business strategies and plans we cling to and don’t see the forest for the trees. Problem-solving has to be the new way of doing our work if we want to be creative and innovative and tackle the growingly complex environment we now live in. A book I recently reviewed  about the limits of institutional reforms in development perfectly demonstrates how planning-based approaches have failed the development community and how problem-solving is showing more promising results.

Do you agree with Catmull’s view of creative leadership? Do you know any other inspiring books on this topic?

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