Bookcover - Creativity Inc.

Creativity Inc.

by Ed Catmull

Rating: 9/10


This book moved me. Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar shares the wisdom he gained while running this groundbreaking company, trying to innovate and make beautiful movies. It goes against the spirit of this book to summarize it, because the insights from the book, need careful thinking and consideration.

Still, the main idea is this: Quality is not easy. But people want easy. The job of a great culture in a company is to counteract that pull towards easy, to resist it and foster creative problem solving. In a complicated world, band aids "slogans" don't help and to truly innovate and create something new one has to chose the arduous path over the easy path over and over again. Because creativity and creation is an iterative process, nothing at first is great, only through work, and rework and feedback and lots of processing does it become so. And putting work through, sometimes harsh, criticism stings, a lot, but is also of vital importance to creative endeavours and producing high quality original work. And this is what Pixar was all about.

The last chapter on Steve Jobs alone makes this book worth reading. But even besides that it's absolutely filled with anecdotes and ideas about on how to help foster creativity in a workplace.

After having read it, I feel like I've got a glimpse on what Robert Pirsig meant by the ominous term "Quality" in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pixar and their films have it – Quality. And this book, Creativity Inc. tries to teach the reader how to create it as well.

Detailed Notes:

Introduction: Lost and Found

There are problems, but you have to go out and find them, and then solve them.

Achieving a goal leaves a hole. You need something new to motivate you into action again.

The Leading Question: Is there a way to avoid stupidity in company decision making?

I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative — whatever form that creativity takes — and that to encourage such development is a noble thing.

Creativity can be blocked. The book is about removing blocks.

Only when we admit what we don't know can we ever hope to learn it.

Part I - Getting Started

Chapter 1 - Animated

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.

Problems entangle themselves, requiring multiple solutions to untangle and clean up. And they are easy to miss, because the point of view we are at can hide it. Curse of Knowledge + Curse of Position. Where we are and who we are affect what problems we can see and to which we are blind.

Einstein - explaining existing things Disney - inventing new things

How to balance the lone genius with the emergent genius of the group?

Multitude of great Thinkers + Autonomy = Creative Innovation

Chapter 2 - Pixar is Born

Even now, forty years late, I've never stopped questioning.

Have total confidence in the people you hire. You have to trust them, so you can give them autonomy.

To attract the sharpest minds, I needed to put my own insecurities away.

When faced with a challenge, get smarter.

Hire people smarter than you. There is a risk in it, but the rewards are too high to not do it.

Exceptional people attract other exceptional people. Raising the bar with hiring, therefore is important.

People choose comfort over progress and change that is uncomfortable. Short term often triumphs.

Do, or do not. There is no try. — Yoda

Book Recommendation: The Art of Animation - Bob Thomas

Visual Polish frequently doesn't matter if you are getting the story right.

Steve Jobs bought Pixar from Lucasfilms.

Chapter 3 - A Defining Goal

There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to drive rapid learning.

Management advice books are all too often giving stupid "nonadvice". Slogans instead of wisdom.

Poke the environment, see how it reacts, learn from it.

Simple answers to complex problems distract from the real questions to ask, and possible complex solutions, that could be found, are not searched for.

Empowering people to own the product improves the quality of it tremendously.

People can be blind to good ideas.

A quote on Steve Jobs:

Failure made him better, wiser, and kinder.

Every interaction was informed by a sende of pride and accomplishment. We had succeeded by holding true to our ideals and nothing could be better than that.

Good things hide the problems. Asking the right questions and then following through by thinking about them can unearth these problems. Overconfidence, ego, the role of luck, interactions between new and old employees...

Chapter 4 - Establishing Pixar's Identity

Story is King.

Trust the Process.

But be wary of "maxims" like these, thinking for yourself and uncovering complexities about how the world works is necessary.

Don't compromise on quality.

If you put people into roles they aren't ready for it will hurt both them and the company.

Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.

Ideas come from people. Therefore people are more important than ideas.

Fostering an environment for great people to work in will generate great ideas.

Don't push aside long term health of employees for short term deadlines. Instead build an environment that sets deadlines and achieves goals without the crunch.

Too often we grab the handle and — without realizing it — walk off without the suitcase.

Words mean nothing if the understanding and theory behind those words is not deeply engrained into thinking and actions. Phrases are band aids, feeling good to apply but not healing the wound.

Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless.

Quality is the best business plan.

Part II - Protecting the New

Chapter 5 - Honesty and Candor

Candor over honesty. Less emotional baggage with the word, therefore higher chances of implementation.

Everything we produce sucks at the beginning. A big part of the creative process is iterating over things to improve their quality until they no longer suck. But are great.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.

When reviewing, there are no solutions proposed. The review process is there to show problems, then the people can decide if and how they tackle them.

Candid, true feedback is rare. People should value and strive for it.

Good feedback is timely, and accurate. It says what is wrong, what is missing. It should be phrased in an exploratory way - what could this achieve, what could this be?

Build your own feedback group (braintrust) filled with people that make you think better and make you have lots of ideas to solve your problems.

Chapter 6 - Fear and Failure

For most of us, failure comes with baggage — a lot of baggage. [...] Failure is bad; [...] Thus failure is something to be ashamed of.

Mistakes hurt. They are embarrassing. But they are a necessary byproduct of creating novel things. Without mistakes, no novelty.

Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration.

Fear of failures leads to risk aversion which leads away from innovation towards derivation. One to n instead of Zero to One.

You want to fail less because you do good work, not because you avoid risky things and hard problems.

We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Starting something leads to a new vantage point, where things become visible that previously weren't.

Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding.

Long range extensive planning increases the chances of derivative unoriginal work. The New is not plannable.

When it comes to creative endeavors the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.

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

People learn from the examples of leaders. Thinking about how to have new people spend time with and learn from the greats and figuring out ways to do so, without stifling their own thoughts, is important.

Development and its need for making mistakes is at odds with a companies goal to make money and survive.

Trust is what is necessary to avoid that. But trust needs time to build up.

Your employees are smart; that's why you hired them. So treat them that way.

The trick is to forget our models about what we "should" be.

Management's job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

Chapter 7 - The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby

Originality is fragile.

New things are by definition flawed, not perfect, ugly. They need to be protected so that they can grow into something beautiful.

Don't confuse the money and efficiency metrics with the goal. The goal is to create something great.

The Beast and the Baby — raw amount of production vs. originality — are conflicting with each other. In a company, you have to make them coexist as peacefully as possible. Deadlines and urgency vs. taking the time to create something great.

The Beast is made up of the employees and other running costs that a company accrues as it grows. Feeding the beast is giving the people work to do. Keeping everybody busy. However business for business's sake is not laudable. Also see The Goal or The Phoenix Project.

If the beast takes over, companies eventually die, because they stop taking risks and innovating.

Healthy company culture is balancing the needs of different teams and parts of the company against each other.

Some things - like proper balancing - can only be learned by doing.

Overprotection is not good either. Sometimes people try to "polish a brick".

The new needs protection. Business-as-usual does not.

Chapter 8 - Change and Randomness

People dislike change, and so they protect the status quo. But change happens either way.

Randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life.

I think the person who can not change his or her mind is dangerous.

Randomness intersects with skill and patterns, and they are hard to tease apart.

We like oversimplifying, but have to be careful, because sometimes the world is random and complex and doesn't fit neatly into our idealized patterns.

Randomness can be self similar. Like a Fractal.

Process can not fix randomly arising problems. Hence people should fix them as soon as they are noticed, no matter their position in the company.

Have backups. And then backups of backups. Test their validity regularly.

There are no clear cut categories of small vs. large problems. Solve more problems, by engaging more people.

Don't cling to what used to work. Instead embrace change.

Working with change is what creativity is about.

Chapter 9 - The Hidden

The problems that kill companies are often hidden in plain sight. Finding those problems is a continually unfolding process. Looking out and preparing for problems that might not even exist is a good thing, to a degree.

Our knowledge of the world is limited, by the amount we learned and by the biases we have. Knowing and acknowledging just how much we don't know and are blind about, is a necessary act of humility and prepares to be cautious.

Hierarchies hide problems from the people at the top.

The world is interconnected, a lot of small things have to happen to get to a certain outcome, and being conscious of that fact is good, even though the full connections will be forever beyond our grasp.

A lot of our perception is filling in details into the sparse detail we perceive.

We are meaning-making creatures.

Our experiences change the models we have in our heads and therefore change how we experience the world. Different experiences => different world view.

It's easy to be deluded while being quite convinced that we are the only sane ones around.

Feynman's Rule - Don't fool yourself and remember that you are the easiest person to fool.

Mental models shape the way we see the world, however they are not the world. The map is not the territory, and people can draw a lot of different maps for the same territory, all missing certain features while focusing on others. The problem is, the maps we have drawn ourselves are usually considered as true, without further thinking about it.

The future is hidden from us. It has to be made. Has to be actively uncovered.

Eliminating the problems that lie hidden in plain sight helps people to become creative. Overcoming biases against action, and change and novelty.

Part III - Building and Sustaining

Chapter 10 - Broadening Our View

Preconceptions can make us blind and we often miss the boundary between new information and preconception. People's preconceptions interact with each other. They are entangled.

Individual creativity is magnified by the people around you.

Research is necessary to do original work. Without research everything is derivative of what you already knew at the time. Research is getting in entirely new facts, ideas, and perspectives.

No detail is too small.

However there are tradeoffs between which detail to tackle, because not all details are equally important.

Setting limits has to be done in a way that helps the creative process instead of hindering it.

Art challenges technology, Technology inspires art. — John Lasseter

Leave room for the unexpected to happen.

Book Recommendation: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - Betty Edwards

Drawing is in large part accurately seeing the world. Distancing yourself from the way things appear to be and see them for how they really are. To not muddle what we draw with our preconceptions and models is to draw realistically.

Learning to draw is learning how to see clearly. And learning how to see clearly is important in areas besides drawing.

Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren't exceptional.

This is hard though, because:

Left to our own devices, we avoid unpleasantness.

Habits that make people think and self-reflect are important.

Data is important, but it's not complete in describing the world. There are things we can't (yet) measure. And it's easy to misinterpret data. But it's a useful tool nonetheless.

Have a not-know mind. Also known as beginners mind. Also known as staying a child. Also known as curiosity and wondering about the world.

Chapter 11 - The Unmade Future

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. — Alan Kay

Originality exists at the boundary between the known and unknown. Being there is painful, hence not many people go there and have creative and original ideas.

0-n is not original, but it keeps away the fear of the unknown. That's why many people don't innovate. It's easier being a cook than a chef.

Never stop moving forward.

Mental models can help against that fear. And enable creativity. A few: sailing a ship, going through a dark tunnel, finding the way out of a maze without panicking, climbing up a mountain blindfolded...

The mental models for management are different, more focused on balance: guiding sheep, color shifting like a chameleon to be the person necessary, balancing a pyramid on its tip, going up and down with an elevator to meet people at their level, or trains running down a track. The last one is interesting, because it's not about the power of the train but putting down the right direction of where the track leads.

Everything is changing. All the time. And you can't stop it.

If you try, it will hurt.

Mindfulness practice is a way of seeing things as they really are, quieting the constant bickering of the brain, about how it would like them to be. This constant nagging voice, usually worsens problems and from a management perspective is not helpful at all. Meditation tries overcoming it.

Part IV - Testing What We Know

Chapter 12 - A New Challenge

Easy isn't the goal. Quality is.

The chapter details the acquisition of Pixar by Disney and all the things they had to do, to keep the Pixar culture healthy and fixing the Disney culture.

Chapter 13 - Notes Day

Keeping up with past excellence can lead to risk avoidance and therefore not being excellent anymore. It's better to fail every once in a while if that produces excellent work, than always deriving more of the same "excellence". At some point it start to lose quality.

Notes Day — All of Pixar getting together solving a single problem. A giant inbox, people sorting through it, designing a conference around the suggestions.

Persist through adversity.

Uncertainty and change are life's constants. And that's the fun part.

Ease isn't the goal, excellence is.

Afterword - The Steve We Knew

Do not attach your ego to an idea, yet argue for it with full force. But instantly change your mind when a better idea is presented. And then argue for that with full force.

Steve understood the value of science and law, but he also understood that complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways. And that creativity, at its best, surprises us all.

It is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world.