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Creativity, Inc.


It was earlier this year when I was sitting in a room with a few hundred educators. These folks weren’t your normal educators though. They were attendees at the Pluralsight author summit. They were there to learn more about how they could produce courses for Pluralsight that people wanted to watch. Motivated by a compensation schedule that rewards views they were looking for how to create a better course to get those viewers. However, that wasn’t the conversation that got me started. I settled down to the table with one of the founders, Keith, and his wife to talk casually before the next presentation. We were talking about how to create a culture within the rapidly growing Pluralsight organization. I was hooked on the challenge of creating the right environment for people to flourish even during growth. It was in the middle of this conversation that Keith suggested that I might like Ed Catmull’s (and Amy Wallace’s) book Creativity, Inc. It chronicles the growth of Pixar. While not in the animated movie business, learning how a creative organization works is always good.


The truth is that the folks at Pixar and I’ve always been three degrees of separation – even before Pixar began. When I was in high school I was introduced to some developers who were doing computer graphics for TV network programs. I vividly remember seeing some of the graphics for the NBA championships and thinking they were amazing. When I moved to Indianapolis after high school I was introduced to and interviewed with Truevision. (I didn’t get the job.) Back in the day they were making the hardware to do the rendering of these high end images. Their Targa card was the standard. They were also developing processing cards with RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computers) processors. It was cutting edge for the animation. It was around this time that Pixar’s logo (and mascot) was initially created. These connections and an interest in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the SIGGRAPH special interest group that was interested in graphics meant I was always watching from the cheap seats as computer graphics improved to the point where it was possible to make animated films a reality. From this context, it was interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtains to discover the organizational challenges in making such an amazing organization.

Hidden Problems

When you look into tragedy, whether it’s the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the disastrous failure of the Deep Water Horizons oil drilling platform in the gulf of Mexico, you find that the issues that led to the tragedy was well known by at least a few people well before it was too late. From stock market and economic collapses to disease epidemics, the problems that we’re facing are almost always known ahead of time by well-meaning people who don’t want to sound the alarm bells. An analyst of the stock market once quipped that economists had predicted 17 of the last three recessions.

No one wants to be the boy that cried wolf. We don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. There’s a reason that there’s a saying for “don’t shoot the messenger” – it used to happen all too often and quite literally. There’s such a strong disincentive to be real when being real means bringing bad news that it’s a herculean task to create a culture that embraces bad news. Where it’s just as valued to offer opposing opinions as it is to offer praise.

Creating an environment that makes the hidden problems valuable means creating a culture of sharing, respect, and trust (See my post on Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy) What I often describe in individual terms of relationships between two people, culture attempts to create as the cultural norm (See my post Organizational Chemistry for more on culture.)

Instead of trying to instill a sense of safety and accountability in each individual person, the goal is to instill it – to anchor it – inside of a culture so that new people are indoctrinated into the culture and way of doing things – without having to be taught it individually.

The Art and Craft

When we hire someone to work with us we’re looking for a certain set of skills. Those skills map to what we need them to do for their job. We assume that they have those skills. Those skills are their craft. It’s what they’re being asked to do. However, good people move beyond this and start to demonstrate their art. In other words, they move back from the proficiency in what they do and they move towards being able to look at ascetics. (See Following, Fluent, Detaching in my review of Presentation Zen.)

Even Aristotle knew that there was more to people than their ability to get things done (techne). There’s also intuition (nous) and science (episteme), practical wisdom (phonesis), and theoretical wisdom (sophia). (Thanks to Theory U for the quotes from Nicomachean Ethics.) So what you expect from the folks you hire isn’t the craft of what they do. What you expect (or desire) from the folks you hire is that they’re well rounded enough to deliver on the artistry of what they’re doing as well.

Walt Disney and Albert Einstein

It’s rare that you see the likes of Albert Einstein and Walt Disney put together. On the surface they led very different lives. They approached their world differently. In fact they do have very different approaches to their excellence – their intelligences manifested themselves differently (See Extraordinary Minds.) However, they do exist on the same continuum of greatness. Einstein is known for his persistence and his ability to describe what already exists – to make sense of the senseless. Walt Disney is known for his persistence (See my book review on Primal Leadership which shares about his failures) but also Walt is known for his continuous pursuit of excellence and his ability to describe things which don’t exist yet – his ability to see into the future and grab something out.

For me they represent ideal forms to be emulated. How can you get the amazing clarity of today’s reality with tomorrow’s wonder of the future?

Culture of Creativity

I’ve seen plenty of broken organizations in my years. I’ve walked into organizations so calcified with bureaucracy that they couldn’t get anything done. The words were actually spoken that you only get in trouble for something that fails – you don’t get in trouble for not doing anything. So I’ve seen the bad. And in truth, I’ve seen the good as well. Where everyone works as a team and they’re just doing the best they can with the cards that they’ve been dealt. Instead of bemoaning their condition they’re excited to try things.

However, most of my clients aren’t creative organizations. They’re not focused on bringing something to life that has never existed before. They’re just trying to work together well. There’s a special burden hoisted on those organizations that have to be creative for a living. They’ve got to be tough with their ability to take feedback – and remain comfortable enough to see reality the way it is and make connections that other people can’t make.

Creating a culture where there’s acceptance of feedback and more importantly encouragement to “fail fast” is an amazing feat.

Dialogue in the Brain Trust

It all starts with dialogue (See Dialogue). It starts with the ability to have open, honest communications that leaves everyone more whole while not avoiding difficult topics. If you can master dialogue – and institutionalize it into your culture – you’ve created a powerful tool for learning and growing. Consider the work of Arie De Geus formerly the director of Shell’s strategic planning group when he says that the true differentiator for what will cause organizations to outlast their competitors is their ability to learn faster.

In Pixar the brain trust is that institutionalization of dialogue. It’s the expectations that you’re going to get criticism but it will be about the project not about the person and it will be constructive. It will be not just what’s wrong but at least some hints about how to improve it – or at least what is missing. When you’re confronted with continuous constructive feedback, you have to learn. You have to get better.

Ownership of Responsibility

Lean manufacturing has received a great deal of press now. Whether it’s seen as the outgrowth of Deming’s work or as the Toyota Production System (See Unleashing Innovation and Change or Die for more about lean), Lean has a handful of tenants that allow it to be successful in many environments. It’s built on the idea that the more you can get everyone to be a part of problem solving – to caring about the outcomes instead of just their jobs – the better off everyone will be.

Creating responsibility for fixing problems in everyone in the organization seems trivial but in truth is rather hard to do because people taking responsibility means that everyone has to believe that it’s OK for them to take the initiative to solve problems. Every time they try and fail – and waste (consume) some money – you have to know how to respond. Any business leader hates waste. The trick is to realize that it’s an investment in failure. It’s an investment in people being able to make mistakes and allowing them that space.

Every time that you respond poorly to someone’s failed attempt to solve a problem, you make it harder for the next person to try to fix things. I know that it’s very hard to bite your tongue and reframe your thoughts when you see a particularly big mistake happen – but it’s necessary if you want to get to the place where everyone is willing to solve problems.

Mistakes as Footsteps

The truth about business is that mistakes are just like footsteps. If you’re going to get anywhere, you’re going to make them. You’ve got to figure out not how to prevent mistakes – because that’s fallacy. The big thing that every business leader has to learn is how to make mistakes faster, to learn more, and to recover quicker when the mistakes are made.

Aptitude of Recovery

When they’re teaching a new pilot one of the parts of the training is something called unusual attitudes. In this training the instructor tells you to close your eyes and he purposefully does some maneuvers with the aircraft to disorient you. He then places the airplane in an unusual attitude and tells you to open your eyes to recover. Unusual in this case is usually pitched up or down and banked. In most cases you won’t do both at any extreme at the same time. In most situations, you’ll not do both at the same time with very much intensity.

The objective is for you to figure out what you need to do to get the airplane to the straight and level quickly. There’s an order of operations to it so that you don’t stall the aircraft and create a problem – or rip the wings off which is worse. You’re taught how to recover from the unusual circumstance quickly and efficiently. However, this seems like an odd thing. Why would you ever get into the unusual attitude?

The answer is simple. It happens. You’re wandering off in your mind, you’re distracted, or you’re simply not paying attention. The training doesn’t deny that problems will happen – in fact the training you receive assumes that problems will happen and that you’ll have to learn how to do something about it when they do. As a result, when a pilot finds himself in an unusual situation he knows what to do.

The ability to find yourself in a bad spot and knowing what to do to get out of it isn’t just a flying skill. It’s a life skill. We can deny problems happen all we want – or we can create the skill of recovering from things when they do go wrong – because inevitably they will.

Managing well isn’t about perfectionism or never making a mistake – it’s about making mistakes, recovering from them, and learning from them.

Suck Until You Succeed

You wouldn’t expect an organization like Pixar who has done great work with animated movies to say that “…all of our movies suck.” Unless of course you realize that the full quote is “Early on all of our movies suck.” Perhaps even then you’ve got the view that the movies that Pixar makes were ones divinely inspired and are destined for greatness. It’s a great illusion – but it’s just that it’s an illusion.

Whatever you work on, whether it is movies or products, they’re going to suck when you start. The key to the Pixar process – and any process – is iterative development. That is that every day you try to make whatever you’re doing suck less. Sometimes that means making it suck more so you can see how much it sucks – and then you know you’ve got to change it.

In an environment where failing is OK and failing fast is better, it’s OK to have movies that start out sucking because they can learn to suck less over time.

Randomness, Luck, and Success

I’ve read a lot of books about business success. And I have to agree with Creativity, Inc.’s statement that there’s a fair amount of luck involved – and that most business success books leave this out. They want us to believe that it was the owner’s skill that navigated them through the rough waters of business and not that occasionally they got lucky. Having shared the struggles and the situations where Pixar was on its last breaths, I know that Ed Catmull understands how close to the brink we’ve all come in running our businesses.

The truth about running a business is that it takes a little bit of luck to make it work. If everything always stacked up against you, you wouldn’t have a prayer of making it. I know that over the years I’ve depended on luck when nothing else seemed to be working. However, luck is really just randomness. In our rational minds we want to make randomness seem more explainable so it becomes luck.

It has been said that “Luck favors the prepared” and I believe that. I believe that every organization’s success as it comes through luck is based on the organization’s ability to respond to changing circumstances and adapt to the new reality. This creates the ability for randomness to be converted into luck – or good fortune.

Steve Jobs and Inventing the Future

I’ve never been a “fan” of Steve jobs. Maybe because I’m missing the “fan” gene. I have, however, been impressed at Steve’s ability to present, to be a showman, and to be a visionary to create new products that the world has never seen. So the glimpse of Steve that the book shared was a welcome treat for me. I got to peek into the life of a great man, without needing to become a great fan.

One of the most interesting things I read was “I’m not a filmmaker … but …”. It’s interesting because Steve respected the craft and the artistry that was filmmaking. Steve was an excellent story teller. Many people study his work and try to emulate his timing and pizazz. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t refine that by interacting with the folks at Pixar over the years – learning how to tell great stories through the people at Pixar who loved to tell stories.

The good news is that you can read the story about Pixar, the people who loved to create stories, whether you’re a raving Steve Jobs fan or not in Creativity, Inc.