What can we learn from Ed Catmull’s book on management?
I bought Creativity, Inc. – Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In the Way of True Inspiration after reading an extract in Fast Company. The psychobabble subheading doesn’t really do much to describe what this book is about. Creativity, Inc. is really about ambition, management skills, meeting seemingly impossible deadlines, and producing extraordinary work.
Catmull, 69, is a computer scientist, and the president of Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios. Creativity Inc. focusses mostly on the genesis of Pixar and the learning Catmull went through in order to install management structures and a professional environment that would make Pixar one of the most successful studios of all time. You can’t fault its hit rate: 14 feature films, all massive commercial successes, with the cash only surpassed by the critical and audience praise (let’s not talk about Cars 2) the films garner. Pixar has changed the industry, changed the technology used to make animated feature films, and become shorthand for quality, and brilliant storytelling that both parents and children and everyone else can respond to equally.
Hugely successful people such as Catmull have a habit of speaking in vague self-helpisms that avoid the nitty gritty of creative and commercial ruthlessness. But Catmull does lift the lid somewhat on both his personal dreams, processes, and the almost impossible balance between corporate life and creative excellence. So what can we learn from Catmull’s manual?
Have an ambition.
When Catmull was in college, he decided he would make the first ever animated feature film solely made with computer graphics. It would take two decades to realise this ambition with Toy Story, and at the start when he fostered this dream, it certainly wasn’t a reality. But he seeded the goal in his head and then set about doing everything he could to make it happen, both subconsciously and consciously. What a pay off.
There’s a lot of luck involved.
Luck is something I find successful people don’t place too much emphasis on. But luck has so much to do with everything positive that happens to us. Catmull grew up when Disney was in its TV prime and when ARPANET was being developed at the university he attended. He graduated in 1969 with two degrees, one in physics, and one in the emerging field of computer science. His classmates at University of Utah included Jim Clark (Netscape), John Warnock (Adobe), Alan Kay. This environment of scenius is something that pops up again and again with people at Catmull’s level. Genius does not happen in isolation. The other pair of people who shaped Catmull’s professional and creative life happened to be George Lucas and Steve Jobs, and you don’t really get bigger than that. Sure, you make your own luck, and you have to be open to things happening, but Catmull’s creativity was incubated at a hugely important time for computer animation, Outlier style.
Everything starts out badly.
One of the most heartening aspects of Creativity Inc. is Catmull’s insistence that when most Pixar films start out, they suck. They are ugly babies. Stories change, scripts get thrown out, entire characters are rethought, twists are untwisted, emotional arcs are reimagined. It’s impossible to believe that something starts out as perfect as its end product, but because people never really get to see the process, we just imagine they’re always great. Wrong. Starting is just that, it’s a beginning, and everything gets better the more its developed. That doesn’t just go for film, but any project.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Pixar’s Braintrust. Basically, it’s an expanding and contracting group of people who give advice, criticism, ideas, notes and more on films as they’re being developed. Catmull is at pains to namecheck others at Pixar who have driven the company forward in extremely challenging productions and sometimes full-scale meltdowns. But collaboration also requires a certain suspension of ego, something that people in the creative world of film (and elsewhere) mightn’t be so keen to let go of. So that’s why with Pixar’s collaboration directors get notes and constructive criticism, but they make the call on what to do with those suggestions. It’s not a power struggle, as everyone is working towards the common goal of the story and making the best movie possible. Catmull says the key to making good work is being surrounded by smart people who collaborate, contribute and challenge you.
People are the most important things
Given the choice between what’s more important: people or ideas, Catmull says most people go for “ideas”. Well, where do ideas come from?
Story is everything
Nothing it seems, holds more importance to Catmull and the rest of the Pixar crew than story. When Toy Story was released Catmull was most delighted about how critics responded to the story, not the technological feat of a feature length computer animation. Everything always comes back to the story, and that’s what seems to excite the teams most of all. It makes sense. Writers are necessarily given the same amount of respect or profile as directors in the film industry, but everything begins and ends with the writing. You can have the fanciest looking film, and the coolest characters, and all the mercy bells and whistles you want, but if the story isn’t there, you’re toast.
This is a word Catmull loves, and works most obviously in the Braintrust. Other Pixar staffers are honest and offer constructive criticism to directors pitching their early reels, and the results tend to be good ones. Honesty is something often missing from the workplace, and Catmull repeats the old cliché that you don’t want more honesty happening in the corridors than in the conference rooms.
Be as wrong as fast as you can.
Catmull quotes Pixar’s Andrew Stanton who says “fail early and fail fast” and “be as wrong as fast as you can.” Stanton, Catmull says, thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike, you simply can’t do it without making a few mistakes. Or learning to play guitar: you wouldn’t say to someone who has just picked up the instrument that they should think really carefully about what note they’re trying to play because you only get one opportunity to do so. “To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning,” Catmull says, “Even though people in our offices have heard Andrew say this repeatedly, many still miss the point. They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that faultier is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a few worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.” I find the ‘fail better’ mantra adopted by tech gunslingers really irritating, but trying to out run failure when you could just be making a mistake, digesting the information from that mistake, and improving upon it repeatedly until you get to something good, seems illogical. Catmull refers to the principle of “iterative trial and error” as one valued in science – experiments are fact-finding missions that drive people towards greater understanding in which any outcome is a good outcome as it yields new information. It makes sense to take some of that process into the creative world and not be so freaked out about writing a bad chapter when the next one will be better, or laying down a shoddy demo when really you’re just looking for a musical framework, or working on a sketch that doesn’t come out how you wanted to because the next sketch will be more to the likeness you desire.
Other books I’m reading at the moment…
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber - a rollicking tale of Barber’s celebrity interviews and a must-read for anyone interested in the art of interviewing.
A Kick Against the Pricks by David Norris - one of the best Irish political autobiographies in recent times.
The Marrying Kind? edited by Mary Berstein and Verta Taylor - a collection of essays and research about same-sex marriage debates and the LGBT community.
Wild Irish Women by Marian Broderick - a collection of mini biographies on extraordinary Irish women through history.
Waiting to be read once I finish those are…
The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor
Pre-ordered for July…
Rich Kids of Instagram: A Novel by Maya Sloan