A primer in managing creativity


If you are a CXO, an executive, a general manager, a product guy, or just someone interested in learning how computer animated movies came into existence, the book could turn out to be a potential gem to read.

The author Edwin Catmull, takes us through the life of Pixar Animation Studios, the production house behind critically acclaimed, profitable and wonderfully animated movies. In this case, the movies being memorable ones like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E and a myriad of other such films. He walks us through his humble beginnings, his interests in animation and his dream to make the first computer animated movie. He pinpoints the events that led to the birth of Pixar, and subsequently the impressive movies the company is known for.

Post Pixar’s initial success, Edwin turned his focus on how to run the company. As he deep dived into how other stars of Silicon Valley were running businesses, he was struck with a lack of knowledge on the subject. His determination to keep churning out profits, while keeping Pixar’s creativity intact, and more importantly, delighting the audiences through a track record of successful films, has positioned him to offer unique insights through this book.

The core areas that the book addresses are; the inevitability of change, the presence of unseen factors, and how employees can help drive the company to new heights.

Inevitability of change

Ed begins his story through the bedrock of animation research, the University of Utah, where he was able to kickstart his exploration with the pioneers in the field. This was where he had his first brush of working within an empowered group. The success in varied sub domains of animation research was a culmination of the efforts of multiple people. They worked towards a common goal of establishing the computer animation field.

Ed takes the reader through the changing dynamics of the Hollywood industry. It took a film like Star Wars to push Hollywood executives to sit up and take notice. George Lucas, the man behind the space trilogy, always believed that technology would be a strong enabler in the way stories were told. Ed also introduces the legendary Steve Jobs into the book, who had a critical role to play in the roadmap of Pixar, both as an investor and advisor.

The narrative moves deeper into the processes and approaches honed over the years within Pixar. Edwin brings out examples of the above through the various movies that were produced. In a way, the processes are similar to what are followed in the IT industry today under the methodology Agile. But simply following a set of rules never really works! This is where Ed provides key analogies to how such processes can be an enabler to creative employees.

Change could be defined as the occurrence of random events. These events could be predicted or completely unforeseen. Management guides / philosophies tend to throw around optimistic aphorisms about change all the time. Edwin debunks such slogans, bringing out incidents during the making of multiple movies, and how his team faced them head on. These experiences were later sharpened and applied to the management of such creative employees as well.

Unseen factors

He clarifies from the very beginning that a great team is necessary and that the film making process is not for the faint hearted. The author mentions one of the movies, where the basic plot line went through multiple reworks; before transforming into the powerful plot that we all know of today, as Up.  He also addresses that companies are always in blind spots. He mentions an incident from his childhood, where a mere two inch distance saved him and his family from a fatal accident. Those two inches could never have been predicted, nor could the outcome of the accident. And could have been the distance that mattered in the existence of Pixar.

In a similar vein, he brings out a beautiful example of three random incidents tied into one another. The first, that of 90% Toy Story 2 being wiped out in a singular moment. The second being the discovery that the backup mechanisms had also not been working. This would have proved catastrophic for a small sized company that had recently gone public. The third was that of recovery happening through the personal troves of an employee’s hard disk, who had by chance been working from home and required the data backups for the same. Importantly, Ed highlights that of all the questions asked post these incidents, one never came up – Who was responsible for the deletion in the first place?

Empowered employees

Companies that can institute processes to manage such occurrences, without playing the blame game, will be the ones that will thrive in their future business cycles respectively. These examples tie into the fact that businesses operate in a pool of uncertainty and such events can make or break the company.

Ed writes about an important factor, that holds true for companies, irrespective of their size. That is, if a company has attempted to hire smart people, it should trust them to stop the process if necessary. He brings out examples from the automobile industry, where all workers, irrespective of hierarchy, were empowered to report and halt the manufacturing, if they felt that the quality of the product was being affected.

The finer nuances about mixing individual intelligence with group collaboration are portrayed through actual examples of tough times that Pixar faced. This concoction of motivated employees, and fine-tuned management approaches lead to great products.

The book highlights that as part of building great products, misfires will happen. But, the questions to ask of those misfires is the learning gained, rather than reprimanding the people involved in its implementation. He mentions that a fine line has to be tread between accountability vs repercussions.

The book has found space in Mark Zuckerberg’s list of books to read. It rises above being a how to guide, or X steps to success. It is packed with vivid examples of the peaks and troughs of running a start up and thereafter running a successful company. It brings forth meaningful themes of management, reflecting deeply on the day to day problems that can crop up when running projects, irrespective of the industry one is in. Creativity, Inc. is a first hand account of how creative genuises came together to not only build the first computer animated movie. But, is also a detailed insight into how the same people worked hard; to keep the creativity intact on the floors of the company. All the while ensuring that they could produce film after film as astute managers.