Creativity Inc

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull

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Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind. He didn’t hold on to an idea because he had once believed it to be brilliant. His ego didn’t attach to the suggestions he made, even as he threw his full weight behind them. When Steve saw Pixar’s directors do the same, he recognized them as kindred spirits
The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: How do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they asked: How do we prevent our people from screwing up? That approach never encourages a creative response. My rule of thumb is that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.
I’ve noticed what might be called a “law of subverting successful approaches,” by which I mean once you’ve hit on something that works, don’t expect it to work again, because attendees will know how to manipulate it the second time around
One technique I’ve used to soften the process is to ask everyone in the room to make two lists: the top five things that they would do again and the top five things that they wouldn’t do again. People find it easier to be candid if they balance the negative with the positive, and a good facilitator can make it easier for that balance to be struck.
The very concept of a limit implies that you can’t do everything you want—so we must think of smarter ways to work. Let’s be honest: Many of us don’t make this kind of adjustment until we are required to. Limits force us to rethink how we are working and push us to new heights of creativity.
the shorts accomplished other things for Pixar. People who work on them, for example, get a broader range of experience than they would on a feature, where the sheer scale and complexity of the project demands more specialization among the crew. Because shorts are staffed with fewer people, each employee has to do more things, developing a variety of skills that come in handy down the line. Moreover, working in small groups forges deeper relationships that can carry forward and, in the long term, benefit the company’s future projects
By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.
Everything is changing. All the time. And you can’t stop it. And your attempts to stop it actually put you in a bad place. It causes pain, but we don’t seem to learn from it. Worse than that, resisting change robs you of your beginner’s mind—your openness to the new.
“If you’re sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?” he says. “You have to embrace that sailing means that you can’t control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side. You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That’s the game you’ve decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don’t get in the boat.”
The uncreated is a vast, empty space. This emptiness is so scary that most hold on to what they know, making minor adjustments to what they understand, unable to move on to something unknown.
Quality meant that every aspect—not just the rendering and the storytelling but also the positioning and the marketing—needed to be done well, which meant being open to reasoned opinions, even when they contradicted our own
When costs are low, it’s easier to justify taking a risk. Thus, unless we lowered our costs, we would effectively limit the kinds of films that we would be able to make
Cheaper films are made with smaller crews, and everyone agrees that the smaller the crew, the better the working experience. It’s not just that a leaner crew is closer and more collegial; it’s that on a smaller production it’s easier for people to feel that they’ve made an impact
To keep a creative culture vibrant, we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty. We must accept it, just as we accept the weather. Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. And that’s the fun part.
Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table
he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others.
This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.
A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion—and ultimately doesn’t work).
The more people there are in the room, the more pressure there is to perform well
A manager’s default mode should not be secrecy. What is needed is a thoughtful consideration of the cost of secrecy weighed against the risks. When you instantly resort to secrecy, you are telling people they can’t be trusted. When you are candid, you are telling people that you trust them and that there is nothing to fear. To confide in employees is to give them a sense of ownership over the information. The result—and I’ve seen this again and again—is that they are less likely to leak whatever it is that you’ve confided.
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.
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.
Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent.
Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.
In an unhealthy culture, each group believes that if their objectives trump the goals of the other groups, the company will be better off. In a healthy culture, all constituencies recognize the importance of balancing competing desires—they want to be heard, but they don’t have to win. Their interaction with one another—the push and pull that occurs naturally when talented people are given clear goals—yields the balance we seek. But that only happens if they understand that achieving balance is a central goal of the company.
But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.
I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions. What does that mean? It means that we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information or are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t. As long as our intentions—our values—remain constant, our goals can shift as needed.
Once you master any system, you typically become blind to its flaws; even if you can see them, they appear far too complex and intertwined to consider changing. But to remain blind is to risk becoming the music industry, in which self-interest (trying to protect short-term gains) trumped self-awareness (few people realized that the old system was about to be overtaken altogether). Industry executives clung to their outdated business model—selling albums—until it was too late and file sharing and iTunes had turned everything upside down.
I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”
when the British introduced golf to India in the 1820s. Upon building the first golf course there, the Royal Calcutta, the British discovered a problem: Indigenous monkeys were intrigued by the little white balls and would swoop down out of the trees and onto the fairways, picking them up and carrying them off. This was a disruption, to say the least. In response, officials tried erecting fences to keep the monkeys out, but the monkeys climbed right over. They tried capturing and relocating the monkeys, but the monkeys kept coming back. They tried loud noises to scare them away. Nothing worked. In the end, they arrived at a solution: They added a new rule to the game—“Play the ball where the monkey drops it.”
Many of the rules that people find onerous and bureaucratic were put in place to deal with real abuses, problems, or inconsistencies or as a way of managing complex environments. But while each rule may have been instituted for good reason, after a while a thicket of rules develops that may not make sense in the aggregate. The danger is that your company becomes overwhelmed by well-intended rules that only accomplish one thing: draining the creative impulse.
We’re meant to push ourselves and try new things—which will definitely make us feel uncomfortable.
“Sometimes in meetings, I sense people seizing up, not wanting to even talk about changes,” he says. “So I try to trick them. I’ll say, ‘This would be a big change if we were really going to do it, but just as a thought exercise, what if …’ Or, ‘I’m not actually suggesting this, but go with me for a minute …’ If people anticipate the production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas—so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change.”
Occam’s Razor, attributed to William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century English logician. On the most basic level, it says that if there are competing explanations for why something occurs the way it does, you should pick the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and is thus the simplest
I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And, by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you start
personally, I think the person who can’t change his or her mind is dangerous. Steve Jobs was known for changing his mind instantly in the light of new facts, and I don’t know anyone who thought he was weak.
For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. Steve Jobs was quite aware of this story and used to repeat it to people at Apple, adding that he never wanted people to ask, “What would Steve do?” No one—not Walt, not Steve, not the people of Pixar—ever achieved creative success by simply clinging to what used to work
Which left us with a chronological problem: While the emotional throughline of the film was working, the age difference between Muntz and Carl (who’d admired him since childhood) should have meant that Muntz was pushing a hundred. But we were late in the game—too late to fix it—and in the end, we simply decided not to address it. We’ve found over the years that if people are enjoying the world you’ve created, they will forgive little inconsistencies, if they notice them at all. In this case, nobody noticed—or if they did, they didn’t care.
Pete was surprised to hear from a neuroscientist that only about 40 percent of what we think we “see” comes in through our eyes. “The rest is made up from memory or patterns that we recognize from past experience,” he told me.
If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse. In a healthy, creative culture, the people in the trenches feel free to speak up and bring to light differing views that can help give us clarity.
Here’s what turns a successful hierarchy into one that impedes progress: when too many people begin, subconsciously, to equate their own value and that of others with where they fall in the pecking order. Thus, they focus their energies on managing upward while treating people beneath them on the organizational chart poorly. The people I have seen do this seem to be acting on animal instinct, unaware of what they are doing. This problem is not caused by hierarchy itself but by individual or cultural delusions associated with hierarchy, chiefly those that assign personal worth based on rank. By not thinking about how and why we value people, we can fall into this trap almost by default.
If the other car had veered another two inches into our lane, it would have caught our front bumper, instead of the side, and pushed us right over the cliff. Existential threats like this tend to stay with you. Two more inches—no Pixar.
Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise
Be wary of making too many rules. Rules can simplify life for managers, but they can be demeaning to the 95 percent who behave well. Don’t create rules to rein in the other 5 percent—address abuses of common sense individually. This is more work but ultimately healthier.
When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today
The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.
it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them
Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be.