Unless otherwise stated, all quotations can be attributed to Ed Catmull.
Creativity needs to be protected. This is never more true than in the workplace, in which a creative culture is something precious and in danger of being stamped out if not nurtured.
In his book, “Creativity, Inc.,” Ed Catmull shares his experience as a manager of Pixar, one of the world’s most famous creative animation studios.
More than that, Ed offers a number of starting points to help those that wish to work in a space that fosters creativity and problem solving create just such an environment.
“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,” Ed says.
This book is a study of those blocks that have a way of passing unnoticed and hindering creativity and success; things like uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and that which is hidden from our view.
For those managing companies in which creativity and innovation are key aspects of day-to-day activities, these are the things that you should pay attention to and engage with, all the while accepting that you may be wrong or that your mental model may be incomplete. Only once you admit that you do not know, can you ever hope to learn.
I invite you on this small journey of forgetting and learning as we summarize some of the key points from “Creativity, Inc.”
And, as you come to the end of the article, share your feedback with us so that we can continue and expand on the conversation. What, in your own experience, should a creative company take into account in order that it not fall prey to fear and all those things discussed below? What is a manager’s job within this type of company if it cannot be micro-management?
The necessity of honesty and candor
If you are working in an environment, or expecting employees to work within an environment in which they feel they have to hold back for fear of repercussion, you are not using your employees’ full potential.
Worse than that, you cannot make “great art,” which is a prerequisite for creative companies like advertising agencies and film production houses.
To face this problem head on, you need to create an environment in which expressing opinions and views is encouraged instead of punished. You also need to begin by accepting that you may hear things you do not want to hear. You may be told, as John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s Creative Directors, was told, that things you are doing have upset people or impeded work and progress. The key is to take that feedback with grace and act on it. Change what needs to be changed in order to create the best possible environment for all.
One of Pixar’s primary vehicles developed to root out problems and then to solve them is something they refer to as Notes Day, a kind of collective coming-together of all Pixar employees, who then break apart into groups to share their thoughts on various topics in order that they might solve a problem. Managers are excluded from Notes Day, so that employees can feel more free to offer candid feedback.
However, according to Ed, encouraging employees to be “candid” is harder than you might think. You have to begin by being open to hearing those things you don’t want to hear, and by getting employees to feel comfortable providing honest feedback.
In fact, because “honesty” is such a loaded word, you need to start by changing the wording.
Ask any employee if they should be honest and you will likely find they say yes. After all, the opposite of honest is dishonest, and no one really thinks they should be dishonest. Of course, the nature of life is that sometimes, to protect others or to protect ourselves, we are often not honest. That does not mean we are dishonest, it just means that on occasion, we hold back or are not forthright.
Ed says, “This creates a dilemma. On one level, the only way to get a grip on the facts, issues, and nuances we need to solve problems and collaborate effectively is by communicating fully and openly, by not withholding or misleading.”
So, we need to begin by finding a word that doesn’t have the baggage and the attached negative connotations that “honest” has. We need to replace it with candor.
Candor is the quality of being frank, or open and honest in expression.
“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.”
This is one of the primary reasons that Pixar created “The Braintrust.” If you’ve never heard of it, the premise is this:
“Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another.”
Pixar uses Braintrust meetings to root out mediocrity and to push toward creative excellence. The Braintrust meets every fews months to assess a movie that is currently being made. According to Ed, it’s essentially the same as any creative get-together, the only difference is that people are more willing to give candid (and therefore honest) feedback, because they’ve been asked to do so.
“I like to think of the Braintrust as Pixar’s version of peer review, a forum that ensures we raise our game—not by being prescriptive but by offering candor and deep analysis.”
For a creative company—and any company that strives to be the best at what they do—knowing when something is or is not working comes down to a company of employees that feel they can safely provide candid feedback.
And don’t think that once you’ve created this environment, you are done. As a manager, you will need to continue to ensure that employees can feel comfortable being candid.
Fortunately, some of the obstacles that will get in your way are the very things we’re going to talk about next.
Loosen the grip of fear and accept failure as part of the creative process
For many of us, and especially for managers, avoiding failure is something we strive to do, whether consciously or otherwise. This fear of failure however is also the enemy of creativity.
The hardest thing to do is to accept that mistakes are a necessary part of the creative process. Your job then is to give your employees permission to take responsibility and to deal with mistakes.
There’s no better example of this than something Ed refers to as the “Toyota Story.” Back in the early days of assembly line manufacturing, as pioneered by the Ford Motor Company, it was only quality-control inspectors and upper managers who had the ability to halt the assembly line. In this system, hierarchy prevailed.
Then, in 1947, Toyota—influenced by the thinking of statistician W. Edwards Deming—came up with a different model. They handed employees total control of the assembly line, giving each employee the responsibility to root out problems and fix them. Even the lowliest employee could stop the entire production line if they spotted something wrong. The positive results were almost immediately obvious, and Japanese companies became known for the quality of their products, productivity, and market share.
In this system, everyone had a voice and the power to make a difference. Managers had let go of fear and accepted that if they wanted to truly stand out and right the wrongs, they needed to trust their employees.
Toyota’s story proves that if you give employees permission to take responsibility, you will not only solve problems faster, but will enhance your overall product in the process.
The thing you’ve got to come to terms with is that occasionally, your employees will fail. But, you need to trust them to fix those failures. The best tool for driving out fear is trust. Begin with that. After all, you hired your employees because they’re smart, right?
Producer Andrew Stanton, is known around Pixar for repeating the phrases, “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.”
Start with that and go from there. After all, the faster you are wrong, the faster you can learn and adapt.
Worse than failure is being driven by the desire to avoid it. This kind of thinking is exactly that which dooms you to fail. As a creative company, you must start things that could fail and you must accept that your reaction to failure is what really counts.
“There are two parts to any failure: There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is this second part that we control.”
By facing failure, you remove barriers to creative engagement. “One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts.”
Remember that making mistakes isn’t bad, especially if you’re trying to do something new or original. Mistakes are inevitable when it comes to creativity. What really matters is your reaction to those mistakes and what you learn from them.
In general, people have good intentions. Trust that they want to help you solve problems. This is one of the best ways to deal with fear, as well as to be transparent and open with your employees.
Acknowledge the hungry beast and protect the ugly baby
For most companies and managers, there is incredible tension between working in “feed the beast” mode and the production of something of high quality, since what often happens is that success puts on the pressure to repeat and to repeat quickly.
Quality is the first thing sacrificed, after all. “The unknown” may fail and failing means taking longer to get to success, even if it’s greater in the end.
This is where the concept of “the ugly baby” comes in. Ugly babies (new ideas) need to be protected, in part because “originality is fragile,” and partly because they are particularly vulnerable to “the beast”—that force that pressures employees to repeat what worked in the past, rather than to create something new.
According to Ed, “Our job is to protect our babies [new ideas] from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.”
It’s worth noting, though, that protecting the new does not mean preventing anyone from changing it.
“When I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but is is also the opposite of established and entrenched—and that is precisely what is most exciting about it.”
That’s the reason new ideas at Pixar are called “ugly babies.” They are the first iterations of originality, which need encouragement and care before they can grow into full-formed ideas. These “ugly babies” are the infants that will grow to become great leaders (AKA great products or solutions).
Think of how this concept applies within your own company. Do you have systems in place or people assigned to protect and nurture new ideas? How much of what you do is done to feed the ever-present beast? Can you balance these two concepts in any way?
Acknowledge that your successes will put pressure on you to succeed again and that this may very well drive you back into “feeding the beast” mode. And, remember that if you’re always pushing something through the pipeline just to be seen to be putting something out there, you’re preventing the kind of “organic ferment that fuels true inspiration.”
If you’re not a creative agency, fine. But if you are in any form, resign yourself to unoriginality if you let the “beast” control you.
Expect randomness and be comfortable with change
Change is inevitable. If you do not change, you do not grow. And, working with change is really what being creative is all about.
“We must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.”
The truth is that if you make room for that which is unknown—all those random things that happen—the unknown can bring you inspiration and originality. Not everything you do or that happens to you or to your company will be something you could have predicted.
Randomness is just a part of life: “Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised.”
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The fact of the matter is that you will never be able to account for all those things that have contributed to a success or failure. If you do not accept that sometimes random things happen, you’ll be overly influenced by the observations and analysis of outside observers. Your job is to make room for the random things that will happen, be comfortable with their occurrence, and have the ability to work with them.
After all, it is only that which is unknown that can bring you inspiration and originality.
The importance of being aware of the hidden
Another lesson Ed shares with us is the importance of being aware of that which is hidden from your view.
Put simply, this means that some things are more obvious to others. This is part of the reason you should begin by encouraging a candid culture, and part of the reason you should strive to uncover and understand that which is hidden from your view.
You should begin by acknowledging that there are a number of factors that are—and will always be—out of your line of sight. Your job as a manager is to discover those things that are impeding progress.
You also need to be aware that your mental models—the way you see the world based on your experiences and understanding of it—will be different to others and will affect the way you operate.
Just as you had to begin by acknowledging failure as an inevitable part of the creative process, so too should you acknowledge that there are things hidden from your view or your understanding.
“We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illusion that we have a complete picture is extraordinarily persuasive.”
Providing you are flexible and that you do not fear change, you should work toward figuring out those things are are impeding progress.
“Candor, safety, research, self-assessment, and protecting the new are all mechanisms we can use to confront the unknown and to keep the chaos and fear to a minimum. These concepts…can help us uncover hidden problems.”
And, if you just want a list of inspiring quotes about creativity and managing, our Community Manager, Jonathan Michael, has put together a great slideshare.
What have you learned about working within or managing a creative company?
Naturally, I’ve not been able to condense the entire book into one article, so there are other very relevant management lessons that I’ve had to leave out. You’ll have to read the book if you want to learn more. Believe me, it really is worth the read. In fact, it’s my favorite non-fiction read of the year!
More than that, start considering, as Ed did many years ago, what your job as a manager is. For Ed, it’s to create a fertile and healthy environment in which ideas can be born and nurtured, all the while being on the lookout for those things that undermine or threaten the creation of new ideas or the environment.
Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Is there anything you can add to Ed Catmull’s list?