Ed Catmull cofounder of Pixar, and now president of both Pixar and Disney, looks at how to continue to be creative in an expanding high tech organisation.
Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration, 2014 Ed Catmull
In many ways this is a tough book to read. The challenge of reading this book is that it makes you consider your experiences in the public and private sector, with both large and small companies. Time and time again, like watching David Brent in the Office, we endured events where senior management spectacularly failed to be creative and open to new and better ideas.
Imagine having George Lucas and then Steve Jobs as your bosses!
Catmull endured massive challenges, self questioning and introspection along the way. He had George Lucas and Steve Jobs as bosses for one thing! A fantastic yet challenging experience. Both Lucas and Jobs spent long periods actively trying to sell Pixar to anyone who would have them. George Lucas got Pixar off to a good start, but needed to raise cash for his upcoming divorce settlement.
Steve Jobs eventually bought into what Pixar had to offer, once Catmull persuaded him to offload the side of the business aimed at selling expensive high end computers to discerning consumers. Fortunately Jobs found another outlet for those more base ideas.
Catmull felt Pixar became Jobs’s beloved stepchild. Not created by himself, nor his first love, but still one he valued and defend passionately. Jobs acted as Pixar’s most high level critic, at the same time as defending them against any outside detractors. Jobs had a clear understanding of this role, and played no part in the ‘Brains Trust’ within Pixar that reviewed the development of their works in progress.
Creativity is hard to maintain
Catmull tries hard not to be prescriptive about what works in enabling a company to continue to be successfully creative. He illustrates this by saying the book took two years to write (running Pixar and Disney naturally taking priority). This enabled him to continually question the message he was trying to communicate, both in the book, and in his day to day work. Part of the challenge was to enable, encourage and facilitate your staff to look at things differently, and feel empowered to verbalise concerns.
Catmull describes some successful strategies employed, but at the same time is clear to say each method was often a one time success. It seems part of human nature to begin to second guess and try to game the process. Just because it worked last time, with the element of surprise lost, it may well be less successful next time round.
If you build it, it might just happen
Pixar’s building was intentionally designed to encourage more serendipitous encounters. More open spaces, shared bathrooms, everyone coming in by the same entrance. All aimed at breaking down the structure and hierarchy that had begun to develop. You can see the influence of such design on the funky open plan layouts of many incubation hubs and tech companies across California, Dublin, and worldwide.
Read it, your staff might thank you, and perhaps even remain with your company too
As mentioned at the beginning, it is a tough, but great book to read. Simply because the Pixar vision is not shared by many companies when fostering creativity. Hopefully the message will spread and other workplaces will become more creative, productive places to work too.