Catherine's Learning Journal

Revisiting Creativity, Inc.

Creativity Inc Cover

A few years ago, I posted a reflection on Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. (with Amy Wallace). I’ve recently been working on a project to design workshops on creativity, so I decided to revisit the book and the post. My copy of the book is full of highlighted sections and scribbled margin notes, and it has been interesting to review them slowly with an eye toward new insights for my current project.

I believe that studying organizations and teams that clearly demonstrate exceptional creativity can be an important way to learn how to be more creative. You would be hard-pressed to find a more successful creative company than Pixar, the movie studio that produced Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up, among others.

Lucky for us, Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, has given us something of a how-to manual in his book Creativity Inc. (written with Amy Wallace). Creativity, Inc. holds a treasure trove of interesting stories and important lessons. In reading it, you’ll get a real inside view of Pixar and the decisions (and accidents) that have led to its amazing success. Just as importantly, you’ll gain insight about the practices that enable creative teams to flourish.

Here are some of the ideas and insights that I plan to carry forward.

The importance of conversation and collaboration

As described by Ed Catmull, Pixar’s phenomenal successes in storytelling and movie-making technology are due to a small army of creators working exceptionally well together, each bringing their own talents, passions, and contributions to the work.

Too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float on the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Pixar values ongoing conversation, feedback and critique. The company is well-known for having a “Braintrust” of creative powerhouses who offer candid feedback to directors at regular intervals over the course of developing a film. Candor and commitment to quality are expected of everyone on the team, and people are actively encouraged to speak up. In this way, films from the Pixar studio are slowly shaped and reshaped until something fantastic emerges. Importantly, feedback is not meant to be prescriptive; while suggestions are offered, decisions on what to change and how are left with the director.

Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its most essential ingredients, those four things would be first among them.

What strikes me when looking at L&D processes and cultures is that we don’t often imagine processes that allow for creative ideas to emerge from good tries and critiques.

We sometimes don’t even imagine processes that rely on collaboration, but instead assign projects to individual designers and developers. There is real magic in collaboration, as Pixar’s success can attest. But if collaboration is not going to work in your process, good conversation can often do the trick. Short meetings, quick lunchroom conversations and “working out loud” can make a difference.

We have to find more ways to draw on the talents of our teams to work together toward an outcome rather than working serially to just do their part. We have to be open to hearing critique of our work and be willing to share candid feedback with our peers, and that can be hard.

The good news is that the agile and successive approximation (SAM) design processes that are coming to the fore in our field feature iterative design. We need to be careful that we don’t eliminate the collaborative and interactive natures of these processes when we implement those design models.

The need to trust the people, not the process.

We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. The error we’d made was forgetting that “the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It is just a tool – a framework.

So true! “The process” can’t tell good work from bad! People, on the other hand, are often very astute at sensing or judging what works.

Catmull talks quite a bit about how important it is to trust creative people to do what they do. We can set parameters and get out of the way, and many creative people will be able figure out how to produce great work within those given limits. It strikes me that too many creative teams in L&D are locked down by process, artificial deadlines, and defined roles and responsibilities.

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.

L&D has a love-hate relationship with process, I think. We have dozens of models that sketch out the steps that result in instructional products, performance support products, and other outcomes. Many organizations have worked hard to improve process efficiency. But the truth is that our actual working processes emerge with the needs of individual projects, outcomes, and clients.

Trusting people, not process, is not always going to be easy. Along the way, there may be mistakes and failures, but these should be seen as part of the process, not personal flaws.

Ed Catmull communicates a very healthy respect for failure. He believes that creativity is a messy process, and you’ll get it wrong for a while before it finally comes right. Trying to smooth out that process by expecting refined ideas and successful execution at every turn prevents people from taking risks that could substantially improve the final product.

I admit that I have been one who has insisted on final objectives and fleshed out designs before development begins – and that idea sounds smart. It’s now quite clear to me that isn’t how it works. We can agree on initial design ideas, but we have to have room to iterate, change our minds, get brilliant ideas, while we are in the process of developing. And collaboration and candid critiques are important parts of that process.

Pixar has the advantage of working on a closed set while ideas get massaged into shape. We have clients that need to be involved, and loose creative processes can look pretty messy (and possibly concerning) to them. But successful implementation of iterative design processes like agile and SAM demonstrate that there are ways to have clients be completely engaged in an iterative process and still be more than satisfied with the outcome.

The criticality of getting the story right

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

Movie-goers are not fooled by bells and whistles if the story is flat. The truth is that a captivating story is more important than fancy delivery. To get the story right, Catmull describes processes that actually allow for (and encourage if needed) a complete re-envisioning of  the core story or substantial changes in details during development.

Getting the story right is an obvious imperative when you are making a movie, but perhaps not so obvious when you are designing training and development solutions. For L&D, the “story” is the through-line – the clear connection between why, what, and how – the overarching “big idea” that brings everything together.

It can be easy for designers to get enamored with specific tools or techniques, or to craft elaborate activities that go beyond the value of the point they are trying to make. As we blend multiple formal and informal strategies, we need to be sure we are helping learners to connect the dots to focus on the overarching story. Holding a goal or purpose as the guiding force can help us to identify distracting “bling” and keep the “story” paramount.

How to manage with humility

I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. the way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.

Aside from being a terrific how-to manual for managing creative work groups and processes, Creativity, Inc. is a book-length reflection by a senior leader describing his process of growth as a manager – a process that includes significant self-monitoring, deliberate reflection, peer discussion, and planned action. It’s about how to be a humble and thoughtful leader – how to focus relentlessly on one’s self, on what “I” can do to be better rather than on pointing out the flaws in processes, people, and outcomes. Ed Catmull has acted quite generously in letting us into his mind and his meditations on creativity, leadership, and leading creative people.

At the very beginning of the book, Catmull says that Creativity, Inc. “is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”  The book helps us understand how to bolster creativity, aspire to excellence, and create a successful, profitable business through great results.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. By Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. (Random House, 2014)

Quotations, in order, are from the following pages: 75, 99, 79, 134, 37, xv, xvi.
For more on Agile methodology, look here. For more on the successive approximation method, go here.


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