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Creative Genius at Work

If you’ve delighted in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or any of Pixar’s other animated films, then you recognize the studio’s trademark creative genius.

But you don’t win numerous Academy Awards and generate billions of dollars in ticket and video sales by happenstance. You need gifted employees, keen business acumen and, above all, an inspirational leader who understands and can execute your organization’s vision.

Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar Animation Studios, is credited with revolutionizing the animated film industry and establishing Pixar as the gold standard. He’s known as a dynamic, insightful and humble man who relishes the challenge of melding diverse interests into a unified, cohesive unit.

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Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., details Pixar’s remarkable achievements and provides profound insight into Catmull’s managerial philosophy and methodology. Though he’s a strong, decisive CEO, Catmull is a far cry from the old-time stereotypical executive bully who rules with an iron fist and swears by his infallibility. Quite to the contrary, Catmull wears his vulnerability as a badge of honor and sees inestimable value in admitting to mistakes and misjudgments. In fact, one of his core principals focuses on uncovering “unseen problems” and attempting to ensure that they are not repeated.

“We will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view…We work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable [and] we marshal all of our energies to solve [them].”  —Ed Catmull

Catmull, 70, graduated with a doctorate degree in computer science from the New York Institute of Technology and in 1979 was named president of what was to become Pixar when Star Wars director George Lucas launched a computer division of Lucasfilm. Catmull made an impression even during his job interview. When asked about worthy competitors for the position, Catmull mentioned several colleagues and cited their accomplishments. Asked the same question, every other applicant declined to name a single potential challenger. Catmull’s open-mindedness and enthusiasm for collaboration weighed heavily in his hiring.

Catmull says he learned some of his most important business lessons from Apple’s Steve Jobs, who purchased Pixar from Lucas in 1986. Jobs, Catmull writes, was focused and brilliant but could also be “dismissive, condescending and threatening.” Nevertheless, the mild-mannered Catmull couldn’t help but be influenced by the strong-willed Jobs. He showed Catmull how to “defend” his positions and to “engage” anyone who disagreed. Fostering a creative atmosphere, Catmull observes, requires constant and honest feedback and a willingness to accept constructive criticism without resentment.

The transparent environment Catmull fosters at Pixar encourages candid conversation among employees, regardless of rank or title. In fact, at one point Pixar held important meetings around a large rectangular table and Catmull realized that the bulk of the conversation took place near the center, where the most influential individuals sat. Catmull switched to a square table, more people felt involved and the discussions flowed more freely.

Catmull suggests that effective managers in any organization must identify and remove roadblocks that prevent employees from sharing their opinions boldly. Organizational hierarchy should not dictate how people communicate.

“Everybody should be able to talk to anybody,” —Ed Catmull

At Pixar, there is little tolerance for power trips and ego-driven bluster. Ultimately, the only things that matter are creative excellence and execution. Catmull acknowledges that tension always exists between individual creativity and the “leverage of the group.” Who receives credit should never be a priority, since rivalry compromises innovation, he believes.

“If you’re going to undertake a creative project that requires working closely with other people, you must accept that collaboration brings complications,” says Catmull. “Earning trust takes time; there’s no shortcut to understanding that we really do rise and fall together.”

The studio conducts rigorous “postmortems” on every film it releases, looking for mistakes and noting the positives that can be utilized in future projects. Writers, directors and animators are scrutinized, with the understanding that blunt feedback is not intended as criticism. Catmull believes it’s impossible for people to objectively evaluate their own work, so even the individuals responsible for Pixar’s smash hits willingly accept their colleagues’ input.

“Challenges never cease, failure can’t be avoided and ‘vision’ is often an illusion. But [creative people must] feel safe – always – to speak their minds.” —Ed Catmull

Catmull is a strong proponent of “mindfulness,” a concept that emphasizes focusing on the present without thinking about the past or future. A week-long, silent-meditation retreat in Colorado – a gift from his wife – taught Catmull that “fleeting and subjective” thoughts have little to do with what is happening right now. A busy mind, in fact, can prevent you from perceiving reality and is likely to stifle creative instincts. Mindfulness also helps you accept that many things are out of your control, giving you greater peace of mind.

“Forbes” magazine was effusive in its praise of Creativity, Inc., saying it ranks among the six best books “ever written about creative business and creative leadership.” The getAbstract summary is available in our library.

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