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Synopsis

What organizational policies and principles bring out the best in your staff? What kind of work environment leads to the best creative output?

In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull shares insights from decades as head of one of the most creative companies of all time.

Catmull brings us behind the scenes of Pixar, as it grew from a fledgling animation shop to a force to reckon with Disney itself. Most importantly, he shares the steps he took to keep the brilliant and creative minds that worked for him healthy, happy and productive.

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Top 20 insights

  1. To design a creative workplace, adopt the principles of an academic environment. Catmull thrived as a graduate student in computer science at the University of Utah and sought to create a similar environment at Pixar because his professors were more concerned with mentorship and collaboration than with instruction and assignments.
  2. Hire people smarter than you and acknowledge that fear can get in the way of the right choice. Consider that these hires will grow you and your company positively. Catmull set aside his insecurity to hire someone smarter and more experienced and credits this move as crucial to Pixar's success.
  3. In a new field or industry, consider bold transparency. Catmull decided to engage with the computer graphics community, publish everything the team discovered and participate in committees to review papers. Pixar still led the efforts to capitalize on the new technology and gained invaluable "relationships and connections" along the way.
  4. The biggest roadblock in the implementation of new technology or processes is likely to be your people. Most leaders prepare for hurdles like finance attainment or board approval. But consider that George Lucas's film editors preferred cutting actual film snippets with razor blades even after electronic film editing was invented.
  5. Catmull recognized that problems will always arise, even when things are well. When the work on "Toy Story" was in progress, a rift developed between the artists and production managers. Since the process was smooth for the most part, people were reluctant to bring up issues. Be extra alert when things are on the upswing.
  6. Hierarchies can be helpful but be sure to use them wisely. Catmull discovered another issue after "Toy Story" because the team had used the organizational structure as a communication hierarchy, which became incredibly inefficient. The junior staff didn't feel like they could address superiors directly but had to voice every issue along the chain of command.
  7. It's safer to have a good team than it is to have good ideas. Catmull says, "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better."
  8. Be wary if someone asks you to trust the process. Over the years, Catmull discovered that trust in the process stops healthy criticisms and becomes a "crutch" that supports sloppy work. The process won't fix things; only smart, engaged people can.
  9. To promote a culture of healthy feedback, don't ask people for their honesty, ask for their "candor." The word "honesty" has heavy associations with morality and a black-and-white fallacy, while "candor" has a positive, almost humorous connotation that will help people open up.
  10. To make feedback integral to your culture and improve your work quality, establish a group like Pixar's "Braintrust." This group reviewed and discussed draft films with the director. Every member of the "Braintrust" had deep experience in film or storytelling, yet none of them had authority over the director.
  11. Eliminate fear of failure in your workplace and enhance creativity as a result. Catmull advises that you analyze the aftermath of the discovery of an error. If your team focuses on blame and shame instead of collaborative solutions, a negative view of failure persists.
  12. Treat creativity like a science experiment to help your ideas progress. In scientific research, there are no successes or failures, only new information. It's better to try something rather than to plan endlessly.
  13. The surest way to know when to fire someone is when they have lost the support and confidence of their crew. After he experienced several missteps with subpar directors, Catmull recognized this pattern among the flops.
  14. Don't be afraid of transparency among those you manage and those who manage you. According to Catmull, "pre-meetings before meetings" so as not to surprise anyone are a waste of time. And information concealment from your subordinates is a power play that disengages and demotivates staff.
  15. Beware that as companies grow and see more success, the push for more profitable output can tamper quality and dampen creativity. As Pixar took off, Catmull balanced the increased commercial demand with space for light-hearted, artistic endeavors like film "shorts" and experimentation.
  16. Director of "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" Brad Bird says that a healthy creative environment is like the weather. Days of productivity and harmony are the sunny days, but just as valuable are the stormy ones. Storms at work – constructive conflict, criticism or confusion – may also lead to good things.
  17. How can you tell if a big idea is promising? Catmull says the best ideas aren't fully formed. They are small and vulnerable and need time to grow. He distrusts ideas that, from the beginning, seem to have the arc of their plot and the characters already in place.
  18. While Pixar grew, other Silicon Valley companies failed because they didn't anticipate significant business factors. Now, Catmull is attentive to what he calls "the Hidden." He knows that Pixar will inevitably stumble and struggle, but the sooner he finds these hidden problems, the sooner he can fix them.
  19. You can fix conflict in the workplace by the practice of an "additive viewpoint" mentality. When disagreements arise, help others understand that though their perspectives are different, they don't have to be competing, but rather additive viewpoints.
  20. Firsthand experience is irreplaceable. Catmull allocates a healthy budget towards research trips to immerse his team in relevant topics. The team visited MIT, Princeton and Harvard to prepare to write "Monsters University." A Pixar team also went to France and shadowed a top chef to design "Ratatouille."
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25 questions and answers
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Some strategies for fostering a positive work environment include adopting the principles of an academic environment, such as mentorship and collaboration. Hiring people smarter than you can also contribute to a positive work environment as these individuals can help grow you and your company positively. In a new field or industry, bold transparency can be beneficial. Engaging with the community, publishing discoveries, and participating in committees to review papers can lead to valuable relationships and connections.

A company can ensure it is not hindered by fear in its decision-making by fostering a culture of openness and transparency. This includes hiring people who are smarter and more experienced, as they can bring new perspectives and ideas to the table. It's also important to acknowledge that fear can get in the way of making the right choices, and to actively work to overcome this. Bold transparency, especially in a new field or industry, can also be beneficial. By engaging with the community and sharing discoveries, a company can build valuable relationships and connections, which can help to alleviate fear and uncertainty.

Some strategies for fostering collaboration in a workplace include adopting the principles of an academic environment, hiring people smarter than you, and practicing bold transparency. In an academic environment, there is a focus on mentorship and collaboration rather than just instruction and assignments. Hiring people smarter than you can help to grow you and your company positively. Bold transparency, especially in a new field or industry, can lead to invaluable relationships and connections.

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Summary

Learn how Pixar maintains the health and vigor of its creative culture so that you can do the same for your company. Pixar grew from a scrappy start-up to a place that intentionally spends millions on creative experiments. Catmull's values of collaboration, healthy risk, feedback and iteration shine through the mechanisms he's created at Pixar that helped the studio thrive. Whether it's the "Braintrust –" Pixar's group of masterminds – or a "Postmortem" for every successful film, Catmull has embedded excellence in Pixar's DNA. Finally, get inside Pixar's most brilliant directors' minds to understand how they think about leadership in the murky waters of creativity.

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Pixar's approach to creativity differs from other animation studios in several ways. Firstly, Pixar intentionally invests millions in creative experiments, fostering a culture of healthy risk-taking. Secondly, they have established mechanisms such as the Braintrust, a group of masterminds, and Postmortems for every successful film, which embed excellence in their DNA. Lastly, Pixar's leadership encourages collaboration, feedback, and iteration, which are key to thriving in the creative industry.

Pixar encourages innovation through several strategies. They maintain a creative culture that values collaboration, healthy risk, feedback, and iteration. They have a group of masterminds called the Braintrust, which is instrumental in driving innovation. They also conduct a Postmortem for every successful film to learn and improve. Furthermore, they intentionally spend millions on creative experiments to foster innovation and excellence.

Pixar maintains the motivation and productivity of its employees by fostering a creative culture. They invest heavily in creative experiments and value collaboration, healthy risk, feedback, and iteration. They have mechanisms such as the Braintrust, a group of masterminds, and a Postmortem for every successful film. These practices have embedded excellence in Pixar's DNA and help the studio thrive.

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Pixar in the beginning

Catmull is a brilliant computer scientist and animator. Paired with storytelling genius John Lasseter and other talented minds, they forged new territory in film by creating the first computer-animated movie, "Toy Story." Since his youth, making a computer-animated movie had been Catmull's dream. So, after he achieved this feat and Pixar stood on firm ground, he was surprised by feelings of unrest."I'd spent two decades building a train and laying its track. Now, the thought of merely driving it struck me as a far less interesting task."

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Pixar pioneered several animation techniques beyond the creation of the first computer-animated movie. Some of these include the development of the RenderMan rendering software, which has been used in every Pixar film and many other films outside of Pixar. They also developed techniques for creating realistic lighting, fur, and water effects. Additionally, they pioneered the use of a technique called 'subdivision surfaces' to create more realistic and complex shapes in their animations.

Catmull's leadership style was instrumental in the success of Pixar. His vision and determination to create the first computer-animated movie, along with his ability to assemble and lead a team of talented individuals, were key factors in Pixar's success. His leadership style allowed for innovation and creativity, which are essential in the animation industry.

Some of the major milestones in Pixar's growth include the pairing of computer scientist and animator Catmull with storytelling genius John Lasseter and other talented minds. This team created the first computer-animated movie, Toy Story, which was a significant achievement and a dream come true for Catmull. This marked a new era in film and established Pixar's position in the industry.

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Catmull had been heavily influenced by his time at the University of Utah, surrounded by inspirational professors and inventive classmates. They challenged one another to new heights of computer science and maintained a culture of collaboration and camaraderie. An entire year went by after "Toy Story" before he realized what his next professional aspiration would be. He was motivated by the challenge of creating a like-minded culture at his growing company, Pixar. How could Pixar continue to produce grade-A content while balancing the increasing demand for more movies? How could Catmull, as their leader, support an over-stretched staff while also maintaining efficiency, productivity and creativity?

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Catmull's experiences at the University of Utah greatly influenced his leadership approach at Pixar. He was surrounded by inspirational professors and inventive classmates who challenged each other to new heights of computer science and maintained a culture of collaboration and camaraderie. This environment inspired him to create a similar culture at Pixar, where he aimed to balance the production of high-quality content with the increasing demand for more movies, while also supporting an over-stretched staff and maintaining efficiency, productivity, and creativity.

Some strategies to maintain efficiency and productivity in a creative industry include fostering a culture of collaboration and camaraderie, challenging each other to reach new heights, and balancing the demand for more output with the need to maintain quality. It's also important for leaders to support their staff and ensure they are not over-stretched.

A leader can support an over-stretched staff without compromising on creativity by fostering a culture of collaboration and camaraderie, similar to what Catmull experienced at the University of Utah. This involves challenging each other to reach new heights while maintaining a supportive and cooperative environment. It's also important to balance the demand for more output with the need for quality, efficiency, and productivity. This could involve implementing strategies to manage workload, providing resources for creative inspiration, and ensuring that staff have the time and space they need to be creative.

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This new challenge of forming and sustaining a creative culture became Catmull's driving force. He began to look beyond the thrill of storytelling and computer animation and towards Pixar's long-term health and sustainability as a motion picture giant. In embracing this role, he captured several replicable principles for anyone looking to improve their corporate culture. These principles are especially applicable to those working in creative environments.

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Keys to the culture

"I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear," Catmull writes.

Listen to everyone

To assess the progress, you must take stock of culture from all angles and levels. At Pixar, a simple conference room table was perpetuating issues and blocking creativity. A designer favored by Steve Jobs had picked out this aesthetically beautiful table. It was long, large and rectangular, taking up the bulk of an often-used meeting room. For thirteen years, this table was used for meetings to discuss creative content. It was so large it could seat thirty people in total, most of whom "faced off" against one another in two long lines. So, what was the issue?

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The table's geometry was perpetuating notions of hierarchy, limiting new voices, and blocking creativity. At one point, place cards for the senior executives were created to ensure that they sat together near the middle to hear as many people as possible. However, the message this sent was not doing any favors for the collaborative, flat culture that Catmull hoped to create.

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For thirteen years, this table appeared fine from the perspective of Catmull and the other senior leaders at Pixar. It was only after they spoke to more people and reflected on their issues that they realized something as simple as a table set-up was hindering creative minds.

Tap into the "braintrust"

Pixar consistently produces top-notch content from a variety of directors. But the ascent to that place of strength has not been easy. Along the way, Pixar has had films that have been relative failures. They fired directors mid-production. They spent millions to develop a movie and later shut it down. But through it all, they found a way to continually create award-winning and wildly popular films. The "Braintrust" has been a crucial key to their success.

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The "Braintrust" was a group of Pixar's "proven problem-solvers who worked magnificently together to dissect scenes that were falling flat." This group wasn't something that Catmull designed or chose. Instead, it had assembled organically because of how they gelled, applying their complementary talents and personalities to improve films that were in development.

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Pixar had tapped several junior directors to lead "Toy Story 2." Unfortunately, a crisis arose midstream when John Lasseter did an in-depth review of the draft film and realized it had crippling problems. To fix these issues, the "Braintrust'' was born. Its members were superbly talented, highly committed senior leaders at Pixar. How did they work together and what made their work distinctive? This diagram explains how the "Braintrust" was structured.

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Initially, there were only five members of the "Braintrust:" John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Joe Ranft. These men were some of Pixar's best and brightest, with expertise in storytelling, editing, directing, animation and screenwriting. Individually, each had a knack for solving fundamental problems for films in development. Together, they were an unstoppable force that ensured each Pixar film was of the highest quality possible. Directors with films in development would schedule meetings of the "Braintrust" every one to two months throughout the development process. The intent of the meetings was to provide a space for candor in solving a film's fundamental inadequacies. What was working? What was falling flat? Which characters, lines or animations could be improved?

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The "Braintrust" would meet with directors in person, where "Braintrust" members provided verbal feedback, and directors and their team would take copious notes. However, it was not the "Braintrust's" role to fix the issues but merely provide feedback. They diagnose but don't treat. Catmull and his senior team felt strongly that this boundary improves a director's own problem-solving skills. More importantly, they also trusted the talent of their staff, conceding that the director was the person most likely to come up with the best solution to the issue.

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Iterate often, and always be learning

The practice of making quick iterations of one's work is a driving principle that appears throughout the book. Creative workers can feel a great deal of pressure and falsely expect themselves to land either in "writer's block" or "flow" territory. On the contrary, creative work resembles many other types of productivity and progress. The first version will be messy and imperfect. Prototypes and pilots are necessary because they get you to begin and not wallow in indecision. The first attempt will always teach you something, and a mindset of continual growth and learning is of the utmost value. The sooner the first draft is completed, the sooner others can give feedback to make it better, and the more you will learn about yourself and your work. The more cycles of this occur, the better the end result will be. The importance of iteration, continual growth and feedback are not novel. However, Catmull set up several mechanisms at Pixar to engrain these principles into the culture. These were all in addition to perhaps the most fruitful feedback mechanism, the "Braintrust."

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In addition to the "Braintrust" meetings, the three practices most central to iteration and learning at Pixar were "Dailies"," "short experiments" and "Postmortems." "Dailies" happened during a film's development, whereas short experiments happened before a film was developed and post mortems happened after a film was released. All three practices contributed to a culture of learning.

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Dailies were the forum through which inexperienced animators and junior directors received daily and meticulous feedback from senior directors and other Pixar leaders. Animators would prepare drafts or sketches of scenes in progress and present them to the film's director and others on the team. Through this practice, everyone at Pixar learned that it was okay and expected to share incomplete work. It ensured progress was happening and gave animators creative ownership yet ensured that they received timely feedback. "Dailies" helped to break down the stigma of showing one's incomplete work.

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Short experiments refer mainly to Pixar's famous short films, usually two to six minutes in length. These films are often played before feature films in theaters and are usually endearing. In this way, Pixar fans have come to know, expect and appreciate these short films. On the face of it, the "Shorts" are hardly justified, costing up to two million dollars per film to make and garnering zero revenue. But Pixar found a way to make these worth their while. Initially, they hoped that "Shorts" would help develop junior, inexperienced directors and maintain a culture of quirky creativity. They already knew that viewers liked them, so that was a benefit. However, they found that the "Shorts"' true value lay in their ability to serve as "short experiments." Remember, Pixar is a pioneer in computer-animated film. As the leader, they were both producing hit movies while also trying to advance the technology of animation at the same time.

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Shorts became the vehicle to test new technologies and animation methods. The use of unproven technology in a short was significantly less risky than designing a whole feature film using a methodology that might prove ineffective. As founding "Braintrust" member Joe Ranft put it, "Better to have train wrecks with miniature trains than with real ones."

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Also, "Shorts" allowed junior staffers to build a broader skill set than they would have in working on a longer film. "Shorts" were like start-ups in that a smaller team meant broader responsibilities for each team member. "Shorts" became a training ground for Pixar's winning technology and talent.

Lastly, "Postmortems" were crucial in taking stock of how Pixar's film production process was working. After a film was released, the temptation was to sit back and relish its success, looking forward to the next one. But Catmull insisted that the team meet, discuss, analyze, reflect and unearth any issues that came up during the film's development, while the experience was still fresh. He knew that Pixar employees disliked this practice, but he insisted upon it because of its value for learning. "Postmortems" codified learnings for the future and, in many cases, smoothed over personal tensions that had occurred throughout the process.

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Mental models for the creative manager

In discussions with senior directors at Pixar, Catmull has learned that most leaders of creative processes use "mental models" for managing their teams. The models have one thing in common – they imagine the role of a director as someone needing to relax more than they think, and often leading others through uncharted territory.

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Brad Bird, director of "The Incredibles," thinks of directing like downhill snow skiing. When first learning to ski, if you overthink, you'll crash (as he did). It will be scary sometimes, but if you just relax and try to enjoy it, you'll find the most success. He directs and leads this way too.

Byron Howard, who directed "Tangled," likens directing to playing guitar. You'll know you're getting good when you get so comfortable that you don't have to think.

"Monsters, Inc." director Peter Docter thinks that leading others in creativity is like running through a long dark tunnel. As the director, you must keep the faith that you will come out on the other side. It will be long, and you don't know exactly where you're going, but your team is following you through the tunnel. You have to keep going, and eventually, you'll see the light, he says.

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Rich Moore from "Wreck-It Ralph" says that making a movie is like going through a maze. The worst thing you can do is panic and run around in circles. Moore advises against running "willy-nilly" but instead says to slow down. Remember where you've been and where you're going. Just keep moving, and you'll begin to recognize the turns and paths to take.

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