how to create a sustainable creative culture

#40 – Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

dear kafka,

welcome to my weekly newsletter.

this week’s book, by a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, was on a number of “best books of the year” lists.

the honours are well-deserved.

why should you read it?

1. because one day, when you decide to get out of the library, you may lead a creative organisation. by the way, do you think all organisations should be creative?

2. you want to read a book that can be abstract but also specific on putting principles into practice. for example, there are many details on how Pixar ran their Notes Day to hear from employees their ideas on improving the company. it’s in the whole of chapter 13.

3. you want to read a book that is not self-congratulatory about the author’s success but is honest about his challenges. the tone is so good.

4. you want to know how creative people think. unfortunately, i don’t have time to cover it below but there are things like embracing change, challenging preconceptions and having a beginner’s mind.

5. you’re a fan of the Pixar movies and want to know the culture that is responsible for them. there are many behind the scenes details that would interest any fan.

i hope you find how i have organised these quotes useful.

How to create a sustainable creative culture

Never forget the Purpose – Pixar’s real purpose: “making a great film.”

Making a great film means telling a good story. “The first principle was “Story Is King,” by which we meant that we would let nothing—not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities—get in the way of our story. We took pride in the fact that reviewers talked mainly about the way Toy Story made them feel and not about the computer wizardry that enabled us to get it up on the screen. We believed that this was the direct result of our always keeping story as our guiding light.”

The goal of the founders: “build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.”

Understand the importance of uncovering the many hidden problems in a company – “What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

“Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”

“Whatever these forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments.”

Fix the unseen ways that are stifling our talent – “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

What must managers do? – “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.”

How do managers know they are managing well? – “As managers, we all start off with a certain amount of trepidation. When we are new to the position, we imagine what the job is in order to get our arms around it, then we compare ourselves against our made-up model. But the job is never what we think it is. The trick is to forget our models about what we “should” be. A better measure of our success is to look at the people on our team and see how they are working together. Can they rally to solve key problems? If the answer is yes, you are managing well.”

Managers must protect new ideas – Anton Ego, the food critic, said this in Ratatouille: “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends”

“Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.”

“At Pixar, protection means populating story meetings with idea protectors, people who understand the difficult, ephemeral process of developing the new. It means supporting our people, because we know that the best ideas emerge when we’ve made it safe to work through problems.”

What is the fundamental Pixar belief? – “Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.”

“Going forward, anyone should be able to talk to anyone else, at any level, at any time, without fear of reprimand. Communication would no longer have to go through hierarchical channels. The exchange of information was key to our business…”

What is the hiring policy? – “I needed to attract the sharpest minds; to attract the sharpest minds, I needed to put my own insecurities away.” Exceptional people will make your company and you look good.

Who should fix the problems in your company? – “The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line.” “You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.”

The Pixar leadership team were influenced by the Toyota Way.

How does the company improve? – “self-assessment and constructive criticism had to occur at all levels of a company.”

What kind of culture do you want to build? – “foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions. Questions like: If we had done some things right to achieve success, how could we ensure that we understood what those things were? Could we replicate them on our next projects? Perhaps as important, was replication of success even the right thing to do? How many serious, potentially disastrous problems were lurking just out of sight and threatening to undo us? What, if anything, could we do to bring them to light? How much of our success was luck? What would happen to our egos if we continued to succeed? Would they grow so large they could hurt us, and if so, what could we do to address that overconfidence? What dynamics would arise now that we were bringing new people into a successful enterprise as opposed to a struggling startup?”

“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”

“One of the most crucial responsibilities of leadership is creating a culture that rewards those who lift not just our stock prices but our aspirations as well.”

How does Pixar promote honesty and candor? – “The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it, and thus, when they do give it, it tends to be genuine. The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar. It’s not foolproof—sometimes its interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor—but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.”

“Each of the participants focused on the film at hand and not on some hidden personal agenda. They argued—sometimes heatedly—but always about the project. They were not motivated by the kinds of things—getting credit for an idea, pleasing their supervisors, winning a point just to say you did—that too often lurk beneath the surface of work-related interactions. The members saw each other as peers. The passion expressed in a Braintrust meeting was never taken personally because everyone knew it was directed at solving problems. And largely because of that trust and mutual respect, its problem-solving powers were immense.”

“The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback. Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs. By removing from the Braintrust the power to mandate solutions, we affect the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.”

“To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.”

Which is more important – the right idea or the right team? – “Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. 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.”

How to fail properly? – “Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.”

“There’s a quick way to determine if your company has embraced the negative definition of failure. Ask yourself what happens when an error is discovered. Do people shut down and turn inward, instead of coming together to untangle the causes of problems that might be avoided going forward? Is the question being asked: Whose fault was this? If so, your culture is one that vilifies failure. Failure is difficult enough without it being compounded by the search for a scapegoat.”

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.”

Management should be open about their own failures – “If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable in high-stakes situations. What I want to do is loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

Don’t overplan – “The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.”

“In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed).”

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is bull – “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a maxim that is taught and believed by many in both the business and education sectors. But in fact, the phrase is ridiculous—something said by people who are unaware of how much is hidden.

“Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do. And at least every once in a while, make time to take a step back and think about what you are doing.”

Why is Pixar University (an internal employee education and training program) important ? – “It wasn’t that the class material directly enhanced our employees’ job performance. Instead, there was something about an apprentice lighting technician sitting alongside an experienced animator, who in turn was sitting next to someone who worked in legal or accounting or security—that proved immensely valuable. In the classroom setting, people interacted in a way they didn’t in the workplace. They felt free to be goofy, relaxed, open, vulnerable. Hierarchy did not apply, and as a result, communication thrived. Simply by providing an excuse for us all to toil side by side, humbled by the challenge of sketching a self-portrait or writing computer code or taming a lump of clay, P.U. changed the culture for the better. It taught everyone at Pixar, no matter their title, to respect the work that their colleagues did. And it made us all beginners again. Creativity involves missteps and imperfections. I wanted our people to get comfortable with that idea—that both the organization and its members should be willing, at times, to operate on the edge.”

“But the purpose of P.U. was never to turn programmers into artists or artists into belly dancers. Instead, it was to send a signal about how important it is for every one of us to keep learning new things. That, too, is a key part of remaining flexible: keeping our brains nimble by pushing ourselves to try things we haven’t tried before. That’s what P.U. lets our people do, and I believe it makes us stronger.”


Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

My previous newsletters are here: https://isaiahlim.wordpress.com/category/isaiahlim_newsletter/

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