Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

As mentioned last month, I’ve been reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. I finally finished it last night. Not a fast read but, very interesting and full of valuable lessons. So the review I mentioned holds true, when Ed says something you should listen. My favorite quotes below.

We were well aware of his reputation for being difficult. Only time would tell whether he would live up to it. At one point in this period, I met with Steve [Jobs] and gently asked him how things got resolved when people disagree with him. He seemed unaware that what I was really asking him was how things would get resolved if we worked together and I disagreed with him, for he gave a more general answer. He said, “When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.

 

Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. There is an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet—in my experience—is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

 

Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.

 

[…] “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

 

Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.

 

When efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by other equally strong countervailing forces, the result is that new ideas—our ugly babies—aren’t afforded the attention and protection they need to shine and mature. They are abandoned or never conceived of in the first place.

 

No creative business is immune, from technology to publishing to manufacturing. But all Beasts have one thing in common. Frequently, the people in charge of the Beast are the most organized people in the company—people wired to make things happen on track and on budget, as their bosses expect them to do. When those people and their interests become too powerful—when there is not sufficient push-back to protect new ideas—things go wrong. The Beast takes over.

 

Another trick is to encourage people to play. “Some of the best ideas come out of joking around, which only comes when you (or the boss) give yourself permission to do it,” Pete says. “It can feel like a waste of time to watch YouTube videos or to tell stories of what happened last weekend, but it can actually be very productive in the long run. I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.’ If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections.

 

No one—not Walt, not Steve, not the people of Pixar—ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work.

 

So my colleagues know more than I do about what’s going on in any given department at any given moment. On the other hand, I know more about issues that people working in production do not: schedule requirements, resource conflicts, market problems, or personnel issues that may be difficult or inappropriate to share with everyone. Each of us, then, draws conclusions based on incomplete pictures. It would be wrong for me to assume that my limited view is necessarily better.

 

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there,” as Mark Twain once said, “lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

 

(This is why it is so frustrating that funding for arts programs in schools has been decimated. And those cuts stem from a fundamental misconception that art classes are about learning to draw. In fact, they are about learning to see.)

 

Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional. Postmortems are one route into that understanding.

 

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

 

“If you’re sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?” he says. “You have to embrace that sailing means that you can’t control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side. You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That’s the game you’ve decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don’t get in the boat.”

 

There’s something else that bears repeating here: Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

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