Catmull: Creativity, Courage, and Candor in Corporate Culture

6:54 PM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

At first glance, my reaction to Mark Zuckerberg's fifth selection was "meh." Following books addressing social and political issues, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, looked like yet another CEO writing a book on management and leadership, extolling his or her virtues and how that translates to success, with the invitation to other managers to imitate the method.

Pixar's undeniable market success demonstrates that Catmull is a talented, creative executive. All 14 of Pixar's animated films have been commercial successes. Seven of the films have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, along with another eight Oscars in other categories. Co-founder of Pixar, and, after Pixar's acquisition by Disney, head of Disney's animation division, Catmull has had the opportunity to shape a corporate culture that promotes quality work by placing a priority on people and candor and fearlessness amid their projects. He shares a lot of valuable insight and distilled wisdom, but I found three features that particularly drew me.

First, Catmull writes that he places an emphasis on hiring the best people. As he puts it, "people are more important than ideas" (p. 75). As CEO, Catmull has the humility to know that he cannot see everything. He writes at length about Toyota's assembly line that assigns to every employee the responsibility for finding and fixing problems in the assembly line. In effect, any worker could pull the cord to stop production, if there is a problem (49-51). When someone is new in a management post, he writes:
. . . we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we "should" be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? (127)
Time and time again, Catmull is looking at the calibre of the persons on the team and how they interact.

Second, Catmull praises candor as a virtue within Pixar's corporate culture. While everyone praises honesty, for reasons of fear and self-preservation, one may hold back form giving the whole truth. Catmull writes of how Pixar foments a creative process where people share ideas, criticisms, and opinions freely.
The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against-- they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think that they've been vanquished And when they do, you must squarely address them. (87)
"Braintrust" meetings, where directors and producers hash out the stories that are told in Pixar animations, are a critical place where this happens (86-87).
There are many good reasons to be careful about what you say, right? You want to be polite, you want to respect or defer to others, and you don't want to embarrass yourself or come off as having all the answers. Before you speak up, no matter how self-assured you are, you will check yourself: Is this a good idea or a stupid one? How many times am I allowed to say something stupid before others begin to doubt me? Can I tell the director that his protagonist is unlikable or that his second act is incomprehensible? It's not that you want to be dishonest or withhold from others. At this stage, you aren't even thinking about candor. You're thinking about not looking like an idiot. (89) 
Catmull explains that "early on, all our movies suck." The only way forward is if the team can help the director see the weaknesses of the story. The Braintrust does not prescribe a fix to the problem; they simply diagnose, to help the director see (90). These observations are written up in "notes."
A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn't clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn't make demands; it doesn't even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. (103) 
Rigorous honesty is difficult, but it is not cruel. It is problematic if there is greater honesty around the water cooler than in the spaces where work is hashed out. Catmull's solution: find people who will be candid, and keep them close.

Third, Catmull extols courage, in the form of fearlessness with respect to failure, as a necessary element within Pixar. Rather than being driven by a fear of failure, failure can be seen as a tool for learning and exploration (109). A critical question in an institution is: "What happens when an error is discovered?" Is there an inward turn among the personnel? Does the question turn to: "Whose fault is this?" Catmull summarizes: "In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, . . . their work will be derivative, not innovative" (111). A different understanding of failure can generate a different response. Experimentation is necessary to reach the highest quality outcome. "The silver lining of a major meltdown is that it give managers a chance to send clear signal to employees about the company's values, which inform the role each individual should expect to play," writes Catmull (164-165). It is, then, amid setbacks, that an organization's genuine commitments are revealed and innovative responses are born.

Creativity, Inc. is not just another management book nor an homage to Steve Jobs; it is the lively tale of the founding and development of a tremendously creative corporate culture based on candor and courage. Catmull shares practical steps in how these characteristics were fostered at Pixar and Disney Animation. Any reader will find some worthy take-aways from this book.

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