Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

by Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers looking to strive for originality, build a creative culture, and foster exceptional ideas. Through the joys of storytelling and emotional authenticity, Catmull details every lesson he learned on the way to dominating the world of animation. Join Pixar’s journey and learn the ideals and techniques that make their company so widely admired, powerful, and profitable.

Summary Notes

Eliminate Hierarchical Structures in the Workplace to Foster Creativity and Collaboration

“When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.”

If you had thoughts on improving the business you work for, would you discuss them with your boss? Chances are, you won’t. Many employees feel too scared or think that it’s unimportant to approach their boss with ideas or complaints. But why so? Simply because they’re afraid of being shut down or ignored. The last thing they want is to be labeled as difficult.

But when employees don’t feel like their ideas are valued, or they can approach management, the right people don’t hear about the problems that need to be fixed. When those problems aren’t addressed, employees learn to suffer in silence.

Unhindered communication is the key to any business, regardless of your position. And when it comes to creative inspiration or improvement suggestions, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.

Take it from the author’s experience, for example. At first, Ed Catmull thought that an “open-door” policy was all he needed to gain feedback from his employees. That is until he realized his workers were unhappy and didn’t feel encouraged to approach him with their problems.

To fix this problem, Catmull began to visit all his employees individually. He would pop his head into their offices, sit with them, and gain insight into their feelings toward Pixar. This gave them the confidence to speak up and voice their concerns.

Another way to break down hierarchical structures is by ensuring that all employees, no matter their rank, take ownership of their work.

For example, Japanese factories were more productive in the 1940s when they got rid of their assembly lines. Instead of only allowing senior management to stop production, all workers could bring it to a halt by pulling a cord if they noticed a problem. This enabled workers to feel pride, as they were helping the company fix issues on their own instead of waiting for management to do the job for them.

Actions to take

A Greater Goal Enables a Company to Operate at Its Best

“When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them for fear of being labeled complainers.”

Have you ever tried to learn a language just for fun? You might start with books, an app, or courses and make a bit of progress. But it’s all just idle interest and doesn’t contribute to a greater goal, so you eventually abandon it.

Now, if you were learning a new language in school, you wouldn’t quit so easily. Why? Because the greater goal is good grades and a degree. It isn’t just an idle interest but a contribution with a purpose.

This goes for businesses too. A company will operate at its best if it has a goal it’s looking to achieve. It doesn’t matter how general or specific the goal is as long as the company strives toward it.

For example, the first film Pixar made for Disney was Toy Story. This was a major achievement, and they were striving for excellence. But behind the scenes, there were issues with production managers feeling like second-class citizens. Some were treated poorly, and others felt that their jobs were temporary.

But despite these issues, they worked hard to create this movie because they knew they were working toward making film history. They were so passionate about the work that they put up with everything they hated. The result was an extraordinary movie that made millions.

Because they could see their value and importance to the company and the project, they were able to just ignore their coworkers’ criticism, fears, and worries and work their hardest.

Actions to take

A Diverse Team Is a Successful Team

“To ensure that it succeeded, I needed to attract the sharpest minds; to attract the sharpest minds, I needed to put my own insecurities away.”

The secret to building a successful business is hiring the right people. It doesn’t matter how creative an idea is; after all, you won't achieve your company's goals if you don’t have the right team.

When putting together a team, you want to hire the most qualified people to do the job. But we can neglect to see that there is talent among those with less experience in the field. And sometimes, we avoid hiring people who seem overqualified, as it can feel threatening.

When Catmull was hiring his first team, he found himself faced with hiring people more qualified than he was. He realized that he could avoid hiring them, so he remained the smartest person in the room, or he could hire them despite the risk of one of them becoming his successor.

Catmull knew he wanted the most talented people on his team and became invested in hiring people smarter than he was. By ignoring his fear, he could hire exceptional people who helped the company excel.

He also made sure to hire diverse people, knowing that experience wasn’t as important as their talent. Because his team was so diverse in experience and talent, they could complement each other, creating an extremely successful team.

Aside from hiring diverse people, there is another way to ensure a successful team. That is, by giving your team the time and space to work on their projects.

When a group of diverse and talented people works together with free reign, the atmosphere proves inspirational, and ideas turn into incredible projects. The workplace becomes a space that encourages collaboration and experimentation.

Actions to take

Working Employees to the Bone Can Hinder Creativity

“Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

When Disney asked Pixar to create Toy Story 2, they originally intended it to be a straight-to-home movie. But Pixar knew they were capable of more and petitioned to release the sequel in theaters.

The creative team got to work, trying their best to create something amazing. The team knew that Disney sequels flopped in theaters, so they had to make something special.

This level of stress stunted their creativity, and the story that was unfolding was not up to standard. Team members were swapped out for fresh eyes, and the movie began progressing, but time was running out.

The writing and rewriting, the late nights, and the level of demand caused major problems for team members. Stress injuries, extreme exhaustion, and harmful forgetfulness plagued Pixar. While the movie was a roaring success, Catmull knew he had to make changes so that level of demand never happened again.

When there are traditions in place that don’t put employees first, creativity begins to dwindle. Ideas are forged by your team, and your business will suffer if your team isn’t at its best.

While management enjoys seeing ambitious high achievers, it is not the goal for workaholic employees to destroy themselves in order to meet deadlines. As a leader, it is up to you to be aware of burnout and guide your team to excel without exploiting their hardworking tendencies.

You should strive for a healthy work-life balance within your team and make it easier for employees to achieve it.

This includes adding a gym to the workplace or offering a wellness stipend. Make it easy for them to take time off by providing lunches or outings to keep morale up.

Investing in your employees invests in their long-term productivity, happiness, and creativity. This, in turn, supports your business’s needs.

Actions to take

Trust and Candor Builds a Powerful Team

“One way to do that is to replace the word honesty with another word that has a similar meaning but fewer moral connotations: candor.”

As a team leader, it can be hard to hand control of a project over to your staff. You can imagine how stressful it would be to have a superior leaning over your shoulder while you work. It makes you feel as though your boss doesn’t trust you.

This approach limits independence, dampens creativity, and lowers morale. It’s hard to work and create when you don’t feel like management trusts you to get the job done properly.

Remember that you hire someone because they’re an expert in their field. Allowing your employees the freedom to work on their projects and make key decisions will create ambitious workers. Trust is important in a team, and allowing experts to do their work shows trust. And trust builds drive.

Pixar, for example, has a group of long-term employees and experts in various fields who regularly review work during production. But the real expert is always in charge.

While a film director works on his movie, Pixar’s team of experts might come by every so often with advice. Advice isn’t mandatory, but the Braintrust team can make any suggestions to further the director’s vision. And it’s up to the director whether or not they want to listen.

Another great way to build a powerful team is through candor.

The word “honesty” often holds us back due to our fear of saying too much. Candor, on the other hand, doesn’t hold the same moral connotations. It’s a necessary component, especially when allowing your team the freedom to be experts. You need to know that you can receive accurate updates regarding projects, and your team needs to know that you will give them feedback with candor.

The only way to get real answers from staff is through open communication. Withholding or misleading people won’t get anyone anywhere. Freedom and candor go hand-in-hand to help a team reach its utmost potential.

Actions to take

Fear of Failure Can Restrict Creativity and Risk-Taking

“There is a visceral reaction to failure: It hurts.”

Nobody wants to fail. From a young age, it’s drilled into our heads that failure is bad. We learn that failure is caused by slacking off, not trying hard enough, or not being smart enough.

Failure is painful and uncomfortable, which leads us to try to avoid it at all costs. This causes us to avoid taking risks, too. We don’t want the awkward feeling of attempting something new because there are too many chances to make mistakes.

However, our mistakes can teach us some important lessons we need to learn in life. Too often, we treat failure as a necessary evil when it isn’t evil at all. It’s the inevitable consequence of trying something new. Without the risk of failure, we’d lack originality and creativity.

Failure is also an opportunity to grow, no matter how uncomfortable the feeling is.

As human beings, we’re unlikely to do or achieve something perfectly on the first try. If we can accept this, we can unburden ourselves of that fear. Without the fear of failure, we can try new things and fuel our creativity.

It’s easy to want to follow a safer route, one you know is guaranteed to yield positive results. But is that path the best option for your team and your business? We can’t control the future and often try to cope with that knowledge by staying inside the lines.

But rigid plans and inflexibility can cause you to plateau or miss unexpected opportunities.

Goals are important, and every business needs something to work toward. But that doesn’t mean you need to feel constrained by them. Leaving room for flexibility can create new ideas, drive growth, and give you newfound confidence (and maybe even teach a few lessons along the way).

When Disney Animation Studios merged with Pixar, Disney supplied Catmull with a two-year plan specifying their goals. The aim was to eliminate instability as the companies began working together. Disney believed that following a carefully curated plan would avoid hiccups.

But Catmull knew better than to follow that path and denied the plan. His goal was to maintain flexibility, so Pixar could continue to thrive. They reach their goals through building creativity and walking the road less traveled.

Actions to take

Change in the Workplace Fosters Original Ideas and Creativity

“My view, of course, is that working with change is what creativity is about.”

When Pixar merged with Disney in 2006, they created safeguards to ensure everything went smoothly. But the merger brought many complaints to his office, as workers didn’t want things to change. They didn’t want to lose the old Pixar.

Catmull reminded his team that Pixar is always changing and that these changes would have happened regardless of the merger. But his team didn’t seem to hear him.

Change makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability breeds suspicion. People instinctively want to cling to things that work, whether it’s the way we tell stories or the strategies we’ve known for years.

The more successful we are, the more our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change. Deep down, even though we wish it weren’t true, change will happen whether we want it to or not.

Random and unforeseen events are the beauty of life, and how we adapt to them shows our creativity and resilience. Acknowledging change can help us respond constructively by seeing it for what it is, so that change can work for us instead of controlling us.

Unpredictability is where creativity blooms.

Take Up, for example. Up is a heartfelt adventure, full of wit and depth, but unfortunately, it didn’t start that way. In fact, Pixar calls the first drafts of their movies “Ugly Babies” because they change throughout production. No movie starts as the perfect film we all flock to theaters to see.

The first version of Up involved a floating castle where a king and his two sons lived. The princes were complete opposites, but after falling to earth, they learned they were not so different after all. While this was a fun concept, the story had too many flaws, so they made changes.

The second version was closer to the story we know, but the Up house landed in a Soviet-era spy dirigible, and most of the story took place on an airship.

After several more changes and rewrites, Pixar finally settled on the incredible tale we know today.

Actions to take

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