Creativity Inc: How to Institutionalize Creativity

creativity inc book cover

In Creativity Inc. (2014) author Ed Catmull shares the secrets that he learned over 30 years as president of Pixar on how to develop a culture fostering innovation and creativity.

Bullet Summary

  • It’s the organization’s task to ensure a culture that fosters creativity within the structure of a financially viable company
  • There must be no stigma on failure in a creative organization
  • You are not your idea: learn not to treat your ideas as if they were a part of yourself

Creativity Inc. Summary

Creativity Inc. contains a lot of stories about Pixar and Steve Jobs. I will skip them in this summary to focus instead on the condensed nuggets of wisdom.

Barriers to Creativity

Ed Catmull says that there are a few barriers standing in the way of creativity that people and organizational culture need to overcome:

  • Fear of change

Clinging to status quo and what’s worked in the past.

  • Fear of speaking up

A good culture that wants to foster creativity must make it easier for everyone to speak up, criticize, and share ideas. It’s especially important in hierarchical organizations where lower level employees can feel intimidated by bosses and management.

  • Fear of failure

The fear of failure, present in almost each one of us, stands in the way of trying, thinking and executing new and daring ideas.

  • Fear of uncertainty

Many of us tend to cling to the “devil we know” rather

Ed Catmull though doesn’t depict fear as an “always bad evil” -like in Linchpin for example-.
An appropriate amount of fear indeed also helps to keep the company financially sound and it can help us make good decisions.

The goa, he says, is to uncouple fear from failure:

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

Removing Barriers Is Company’s Responsibility

Bringing fears to zero is probably not possible nor advisable.
But since most people’s fear are so strongly embedded, the need for most creative companies is to reduce fear and the fear of failure.

And reducing fears is the organization’s responsibility.

And that’s, in my opinion, the biggest added value of Creativity Inc: as the leader of a creative organization, Ed Catmull shares all his learning on how to foster an environment that is open to failure, to learning and to the sharing of ideas.

Look For Solutions, Not Blame

When a problem comes up, companies with a healthy culture that foster creativity look for solutions rather than blame.

A quick way to realize if your company has a bad mindset towards failure is to ask yourself what happens when a mistake is discovered. Do people shut down and turn inward? Or do they try to untangle the root causes of the issues? Do people ask what’s the solution or do they ask “whose fault is this”?

Leaders Must Give The Example

The best way to foster a culture that is open towards mistakes and learns from them is through the leaders.

The leaders must give the example of admitting, analyzing and learning from their mistakes.
When they do that, everyone around will feel it’s safe to do the same.

Honesty: Share the Problems

Ed Catmull says that by sharing problems and sensitive information you make your employees feel like owners of the company.

And when they are aware of the problems they also become part of the solution.
“Your employees are smart”, says the author, “that’s why you hired them”. and they know when you are delivering a message that’s been heavily massaged. They will be looking for the hidden meaning and spending energies on gossiping.

Similarly, when you deliver solutions to implement, share the thoughts behind the solution.

You Are Not Your Idea

A concept I love and which for me was the biggest takeaway from Creative Inc. is that we need to delink ourselves from our ideas because, simply, we are not our ideas.

That means that if we propose something and people don’t love it right away or, shudder, is criticized and rejected, then be it because you are not your idea.

This is a very important concept for leaders because defending your idea is plainly dumb and it means that you will not (necessarily) reach the best solution.
Your goal, like Jay Samit also explains in Disrupt You, is to give your ideas the biggest and harshest criticism possible. That’s the safest way to implement great ideas, not to waste time, and also to make people feel like part of the solution.

Ed Catmull doesn’t say, but not taking criticism too personally is a consequence of a growth mindset -also read: how to develop a growth mindset-.

People Before Ideas

It’s people who generate ideas and people who implement them. People always come before ideas.

And No Team Before Others

Catmull says that in unhealthy organizations groups believe that if their objectives trump the others, they and the company would be better off.
In a healthy culture teams realize the importance of balancing competing desires.

Don’t Push Too Hard on Efficiency

The author relates of a few projects and solutions that were aimed at increasing efficiency. But they did not only not increase efficiency, but stifled creativity.

He says that efficiency, cost-saving, and standardization are part and parcel of business and should be pursued.
But not without an attentive analysis, because when efficiency or consistency of workflow are not balanced by equally powerful opposing forces new ideas are not afforded the attention and protection that they need.
The emphasis is placed on safer projects that have proven to work well. It “feeds the beast” by keeping production going, but it does not lead to creativity.

I quote Ed Catmull here:

So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal

 Creativity Inc. Quotes

Here is some key quotes from Creativity Inc.

On problems and our incapability to always spot them:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; but we work hard to uncover those problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.

On problem-focus rather than on blame and person-focus:

The center of a healthy feedback system, we must remove power dynamics from the equation. You must enable in other words to focus on the problem, not the person

On collaboration:

You must accept that collaboration brings complication

And this is possibly the best summary, right at the end of Creativity Inc.:

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear

creativity inc book cover

Real Life Applications

As a leader:

Don’t Assure What You Can’t Assure
We all have a tendency to quell fears and make people -and ourselves- feel better in the moment. That can lead us to grant reassurance when we are not actually in a position to reassure.
Catmull, for example, promised that “nothing would change with Disney’s merger”. And that was the dumbest thing he ever said, he admits.

Be Aware of Lack of Information and Complexity
As the leader, you might think you know what’s going on or, worse, that you must act like you know what’s going.
And when things are going well we tend to think we are doing great. But sometimes it’s just randomness and we must guard ourselves from the trap of convincing ourselves we are right -or acting like we know it all-.

CONS

I think Creativity Inc. contains a lot of golden nuggets on leadership and it’s a must-read for anyone working or in a creative organization.

Yet, it was no super enjoyable for me to listen to because:

It Could Have Been Briefer
I had the unabridged version, and I found it too long.

Too Many Details on Pixar and.. & Jobs
I wasn’t particularly interested in Pixar and the stories behind their movies, and there was quite a lot of that in here.

Wage Fixing Scandal
Ed Catmull has been at the epicenter of a wage-fixing scandal to keep employees’ wages low.
This is why The Power Moves course makes the point not to really trust what owners and execs say.
Words are cheap, actions speak louder. But actions are often hidden, so look at where the personal interest lie.

Also read:

PROS

Overall, Creativty Inc. is probably the best book on institutionalizing creativity at an organizational level.

Review

On the plus side, Creativity Inc. is one of the best books when it comes to running, leading and structuring a financially viable company.

And there is also much wisdom from a leadership point of view -sharing the problems was one of my favorites-.

If you are not into Steve Jobs’ life and personality, or into Pixar’s movies and work, ten the unabridged version might be a bit too long and detailed.

Check the:

Get the book on Amazon

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