Thursday, June 22, 2017

How to Create and Manage a Creative Culture: Lessons from the Pixar Experience

When I first saw the silhouette on the cover of Creativity, Inc. I was stymied. It bore a resemblance to the familiar conductor who appears in Disney's Fantasia, but was not, yet it had a familiar look. It's like that puzzle with the vase and the face, or a number of similar optical illusions. Once you see it, you generally don't un-see. It was Buzz Lightyear, or rather a hybrid of these two iconic images, standing in as symbol for the phenomenal business hybrid of Disney and Pixar.

It was Brent Schlender's Becoming Steve Jobs that cued me in to the role Steve Jobs played in saving Pixar Animation Studios from the ash heap of stories that might have been, keeping the company on life support till all the pieces could be pulled together for the Hollywood supernova called Toy Story. Upon completion of this Jobs career and character development story, I felt impelled to read Ed Catmull's insider account of Pixar. The big achievement there, and the basic storyline in this book, was not Toy Story, or its various other superhits. Rather, Catmull's aim is to share a lifetime of insights about management in general, and managing creative people specifically.

How does a company create a creative culture where excellence flourishes, where ideas actually come to fruition and become earth-shaking events? Catmull shares everything, including all the lessons learned through their various failures, and the miracles that rose from those ashes.

The amazing thing is that despite the various mis-steps, Pixar never had a single film that bombed.

The book's subtitle tells the real story of what made Pixar such a superstar: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration. Unseen forces means forces can refer to forces that are invisible, like the ice below the surface that sunk the Titanic, or it can mean forces that are in plain sight, like Poe's Purloined Letter, but we do not see them. Catmull states that the management team had to be perpetually vigilant. What they were vigilant about was very different from most organizations.

At the end of the book Catmull does a summing up of his "Thoughts For Managing A Creative Culture." If you Google that title, you'll find that numerous writers have begun sharing these. Though Ed Catmull's stories make it such a rewarding read, his distilled thoughts at the end are well worth deeper reflection. Here's a small collection of notes from this five page reiteration of the book's themes.

--Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they'll get the ideas right.

--It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.

--There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them.

--Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions. Further, if there is fear in an organization, there is a reason for it— our job is (a) to find what’s causing it, (b) to understand it, and (c) to try to root it out.

--There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

--In general, people are hesitant to say things that might rock the boat. Braintrust meetings, dailies, postmortems, and Notes Day are all efforts to reinforce the idea that it is okay to express yourself. All are mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what’s real.

--If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.

You can find more of these here or if you go ahead and purchase the book here.

* * * *
Healthy organisms and healthy organizations will grow naturally if given the right nourishment and environment. In the case of institutions, there have been plenty of books written about how they fail. Ed Catmull's insider perspective on Pixar's achievements has applications for all types of organizations. But it would be especially valuable for companies working in creative fields like ad agencies, theater, Hollywood, arts communities, new product development, communications and more.

More can be said, but we'll end with this: Read the book.

“Achieving enormous success while holding fast to the highest artistic standards is a nice trick—and Pixar, with its creative leadership and persistent commitment to innovation, has pulled it off. This book should be required reading for any manager.”
—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

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