Notes on the book "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

You are reading the consolidated and refined version of the notes and excerpts I made while reading the book Creativity Inc..

This is by no means a complete summary of the book, but rather a collection of lessons that I found note-worthy.

Overview

The book deals with the building and maintenance of sustainable creative organizations, painted on the rich background of Ed Catmull’s role in the construction and running of Pixar and later also of Disney Animation.

The first and most substantial part of the book is the entertaining and edifying story of Ed Catmull and of the birth and evolution of the company called Pixar.

The second part contains a number of extended guidelines for the building and running of creative organizations such as Pixar and Disney Animation.

In the following, each section (except for the Catmull introduction) deals with a specific learning or episode. In theory, each should make sense when read by itself.

Who is Ed Catmull?

  • Dr Edward Catmull is one of the most important pioneers of making films with computer graphics.
  • He was one of the three founders of Pixar, together with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter.
  • You might recall that Pixar released the movie Toy Story in 1995, a fantastically successful movie that revolutionised film-making with computer graphics.
  • Later when Pixar and Disney Animation merged, Dr Catmull also became the president of Disney Animation.
  • Under his guidance, both Pixar and later Disney Animation released a slew of award-winning and, more importantly, culture defining films. Besides the Toy Story series, think about Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

He made the first digitally rendered 3D movie, called A Computer Animated Hand, in the spring of 1972, by laboriously and manually recording the surface of his hand as 3D triangles, and then using computers to animate and render this surface.

He also invented the Z-buffer, independently from Wolfgang Straßer who described the same technique 8 months previously, a technique for quickly rendering opaque shapes that correctly occlude each other, and a technique that every single computer graphics student learns about as one of their first orders of business.

Core presumption: Your people are good, your organization needs to support them

Early in the book a core presumption is stated:

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.

This might be surprising to some, but in an organization that has its core the pursuit of creativity, this approach is the most logical.

The creativity can’t come from anywhere but the people, so such an organization will reasonably do the best they can to hire the best people that they can.

Therefore, if the output is not as good as the people the organization has hired, the organization is somehow not sufficiently supporting the people.

Similar reasoning should apply for engineering companies.

The story is more important than the technology

While Ed Catmull was the computer graphics guy initially, and later graduated to transcendent leadership status, and Steve Jobs was the business brain, John Lasseter was the story guy.

Catmull makes it clear early in the book that without Lasseter’s story-telling genius, Pixar would not have succeeded.

The first of many examples, he illustrates this wonderfully with the success of the first Toy Story movie.

This was a ground-breaking technical achievement at the time: A full-length fully computer-generated animation movie that became an international blockbuster.

However, when Catmull tells the story of its release, he mentions quite specifically the fact that viewers and critics were raving far more about the story than about the amazing technical achievements that made the movie possible.

Even for those of us who are not in the business of computer animation, this holds true: People always find the story much more important than anything else that might have been involved in any endeavour.

Reaching a life goal can set you adrift

In the introduction, Catmull tells the story of how they (Pixar) had fulfilled his life goal of making the first computer animated film with the fantastic success that was the Toy Story.

He writes:

Now, the goal that had been a driving force in my life had been reached, and there was an enormous sense of relief and exhilaration –at least at first. In the wake of Toy Story’s release, we took the company public, raising the kind of money that would ensure our future as an independent production house, and began work on two new feature-length projects, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Everything was going our way, and yet I felt adrift. In fulfilling a goal, I had lost some essential framework. “Is this really what I want to do?” I began asking myself.

I’ve written before about the phenomenon of fulfilled life goals leading to tricky vacuums, but my advice then was to favour life directions rather than goals.

In that same chapter, Catmull writes that it took him another year to find his new goal, after having seen so many great companies with smart leaders (he mentions Silicon Graphics, Cray Computer, Sun Microsystems) start failing after a brilliant and creative start.

His new mission would be:

I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture. As I turned my attention from solving technical problems to engaging with the philosophy of sound management, I was excited once again –and sure that our second act could be as exhilarating as our first.

It is great seeing this evolution from solving mostly technical problems to solving mostly human problems.

Interestingly, in chapter 10 “Broadening our view” he explains that the future is not a destination, but a direction!

The future is not a destination – it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when, inevitably, we stray.

Ed Catmull struck the academic lottery at University

He graduated from the University of Utah in 1969 with a degree in physics and one in computer science. He was planning to continue his graduate studies in programming language design, but then he met Ivan Sutherland, one of the pioneers of interactive computer graphics.

Catmull joined the lab of Sutherland and Evans, a place which attracted the brightest students, and then gave them freedom and resources to experiment.

This collaborative and inspiring place would form part of the inspiration for the later creation of Pixar.

Catmull’s lab mates were themselves pretty legendary:

  • Jim Clark, who later founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape
  • John Warnock, who later co-found Adobe
  • Alan Kay, a pioneer in object-oriented programming and windowing GUIs

He also writes about the culture and the group dynamics in the lab:

This tension between the individual’s personal creative contribution and the leverage of the group is a dynamic that exists in all creative environments, but this would be my first taste of it. On one end of the spectrum, I noticed, we had the genius who seemed to do amazing work on his or her own; on the other end, we had the group that excelled precisely because of its multiplicity of views. How, then, should we balance these two extremes, I wondered.

Two Steve Jobs moments from the book

Steve Jobs and Bill Joy: Two great egos at the 1985 SIGGRAPH conference

Steve had previously offered to buy the commercially struggling graphics group (what would later become Pixar) from Lucasfilm, but that deal had not gone through. At that point, he wanted the group to build him a new computer, and not to pursue its computer animation ambitions.

Since then, Steve had started NeXT, and at the conference was chatting again with Ed Catmull to see what could be worked out.

As we talked, we came upon Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Computer. Bill, like Steve, was an extraordinarily bright, competitive, articulate, and opinionated person. I don’t remember what they talked about as we stood there, but I’ll never forget the way they talked: standing nose to nose, their arms behind their backs, swaying from side to side –in perfect sync –completely oblivious to anything going on around them. This went on for quite a while, until Steve had to break off to go meet someone.

After Steve left, Bill turned to me and said, “Boy, is he arrogant.”

When Steve came by our booth again later, he walked up to me and said of Bill: “Boy, is he arrogant.”

I remember being struck by this clash-of-the-titans moment. I was amused by the fact that each man could see ego in the other but not in himself.

The Steve Jobs method of resolving disagreements

Shortly after the SIGGRAPH conference, Steve made another offer to buy the graphics group (the company that would later be known as Pixar), but this time it was clear that he would let the company be itself and govern itself.

In preparation for the possible collaboration, Catmull asked Jobs “how things got resolved when people disagree with him”.

His answer was:

When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.

I found that humorous, and in-line with the public image of Jobs.

However, please note that Catmull wrote a truly heartfelt and filled with respect portrait of Jobs in the afterword titled “The Steve We Knew”.

This gives a relatively scarce glimpse into the pivotal role Steve Jobs played in building Pixar (all the while in parallel with leading Apple into its trillion dollar future!), but more importantly into the great friendship between Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and himself.

Anybody can stop the assembly line: An American in Japan

In Chapter 3, A Defining Goal, I read the following:

The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to stop the assembly line.

Japanese companies that implemented Deming’s ideas made it easy for workers to do so: They installed a cord that anyone could pull in order to bring production to a halt.

Before long, Japanese companies were enjoying unheard-of levels of quality, productivity, and market share.

Deming’s approach – and Toyota’s, too – gave ownership of and responsibility for a product’s quality to the people who were most involved in its creation. Instead of merely repeating an action, workers could suggest changes, call out problems, and –this next element seemed particularly important to me –feel the pride that came when they helped fix what was broken. This resulted in continuous improvement, driving out flaws and improving quality

TL;DR: It is important to ensure that all of the people in an organization can take ownership of and responsibility for that organization’s output. This necessarily includes giving everyone a certain degree of agency in how that output comes into being.

Focus on the people, then the ideas will come

In Chapter 3, we (re-)learn that people are more important than ideas. Focus on the people, and then the ideas will come. In more detail:

To reiterate, it is the focus on people – their work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely central to any creative venture. And in the wake of Toy Story 2, I saw that more clearly than I ever had. That clarity, in turn, led me to make some changes.

Looking around, I realized we had a few traditions that didn’t put people first. For example, we had a development department, as do all movie studios, that was charged with seeking out and developing ideas to make into films. Now I saw that this made no sense.

Going forward, the development department’s charter would be not to develop scripts but to hire good people, figure out what they needed, assign them to projects that matched their skills, and make sure they functioned well together.

To this day, we keep adjusting and fiddling with this model, but the underlying goals remain the same: Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.

The Braintrust

In Chapter 5, Honesty and Candor, Catmull writes the following about the Pixar Braintrust:

The Braintrust, which meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making, is our primary delivery system for straight talk. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with one another. People who would feel obligated to be honest somehow feel freer when asked for their candor; they have a choice about whether to give it, and thus, when they do give it, it tends to be genuine. The Braintrust is one of the most important traditions at Pixar. It’s not foolproof – sometimes its interactions only serve to highlight the difficulties of achieving candor – but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal. The Braintrust sets the tone for everything we do.

To paraphrase:

The Braintrust at Pixar is a group of the most senior and knowledgeable folks who regularly get together to give non-binding feedback about in-progress projects to the responsible teams.

Pixar works continuously on the culture to ensure that criticism can be openly given, and received as easily as possible. See also Postmortems.

The power of rework, rework, rework

It came as a great surprise to me that “early on, all Pixar movies suck”.

They recognize this, and accept it, and then use it to their advantage by pushing that sucky movie through many cycles of criticism and improvement.

Gradually through this sometimes uncomfortable evolution the project turns into a masterpiece!

This idea – that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible – is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.

This story really resonated with me: Creativity (and perhaps even brilliance in some cases) just means keeping at something for long enough.

Protect the new (ideas)

At the start of Chapter 7, The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby, Catmull writes the following:

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 it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.

This sounds like it can be quite tricky, balancing criticism that is sometimes very much required with “protecting the new”.

A continuous balancing act between groups in the organization

In Chapter 7, The Hungry Beast, Catmull talks about the phenomenon where sub-groups in an organisation have conflicting goals, and instinctively, each group will try to have their goals satisfied at the cost of other groups.

The concrete and simple example that he gives is that if the director “wins”, the film will probably be too long, whereas if the marketing people “win”, the film will mimic other films that have succeeded in the past, and so on.

However, if any of these competing groups win, the organisation will lose.

He writes:

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.

To me this was quite an insightful realisation. The goal is to maintain the healthy tension between groups on opposite sides of the table, to reach that balance that will result in the best possible outcome for the whole organisation.

However, he goes on to explain that this balance is not a static state, but rather a continuous interplay of often opposing forces, as reality, and all the people involved, also continually change.

In short, it’s a 1. balancing 2. act. :)

How to deal with constant change and people’s desire for its opposite

At the start of Chapter 8, Change and Randomness, Catmull tells the funny and endearing story of the speech he gave to the Pixar employees when they decided to sell Pixar to Disney in an immensely favourable deal.

We knew that the prospect of our little studio being absorbed into a much larger entity would worry many people. While we’d worked hard to put safeguards in place that would ensure our independence, we still expected our employees to be fearful that the merger would negatively impact our culture.

I’ll say more about the specific steps we took to protect Pixar in a later chapter, but here I want to discuss what happened when, in my eagerness to ease my colleagues' fears, I stood up and assured them that Pixar would not change.

It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said.

Catmull understandably wanted to assuage the fears of his people by promising that nothing would change, when he actually meant that they would do their best to maintain what made Pixar special, within the much more dynamic context of new possibilities and opportunities afforded by the new combined companies.

What then happened, quite obvious in retrospect, is that every time Pixar wanted to embrace some new opportunity, employees would line up at Catmull’s office to complain that he had promised that nothing would change.

This illustrates how important it is to invest more energy and perhaps suffer pain upfront in order to analyse people’s fears and address them as specifically as possible, whilst leaving room for the inevitable evolution and adaptation of a healthy organization.

A few pages later, Catmull writes:

WHAT IS IT, exactly, that people are really afraid of when they say they don’t like change? There is the discomfort of being confused or the extra work or stress the change may require. For many people, changing course is also a sign of weakness, tantamount to admitting that you don’t know what you are doing. This strikes me as particularly bizarre – 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.

People are naturally afraid of the additional energy expenditure required by change, which is understandable. It’s less understandable that people believe that leadership can predict the complete course of the future, and hence should not need to change direction. Direction changes can happen daily!

I found the example of Steve Jobs, known for his stubbornness, changing his mind instantly when faced with new evidence, inspiring.

Profit from your mistakes by eliminating the blame game

In chapter 8, one can read about that time when someone at Pixar did an rm -rf * on all of the Toy Story 2 media files.

Those of you who know, might just have broken out in a sympathetic cold sweat…

Those of you who don’t: rm -rf * is a destructive deletion of everything. The whole movie during development at that point, equal to 30 person years.

Ok, now you are probably thinking: Of course Pixar had backups.

Well, yes they did, but as the more experienced under you will probably guess by now, they discovered right at this point that there had been a fundamental issue with the backup system, whereby there were no usable backups.

Using this exceptional story as an example, Catmull makes two really great points.

First, treat all setbacks, gigantic (like this one) down to really tiny, exactly the same.

Sometimes a big event happens that changes everything. When it does, it tends to affirm the human tendency to treat big events as fundamentally different from smaller ones. That’s a problem, inside companies. When we put setbacks into two buckets – the “business as usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket – and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble. We become so caught up in our big problems that we ignore the little ones, failing to realize that some of our small problems will have long-term consequences – and are, therefore, big problems in the making.

What’s needed, in my view, is to approach big and small problems with the same set of values and emotions, because they are, in fact, self-similar. In other words, it is important that we don’t freak out or start blaming people when some threshold – the “holy cow” bucket I referred to earlier – is reached. We need to be humble enough to recognize that unforeseen things can and do happen that are nobody’s fault.

Second, instead of getting out your giant set of The Blame Game, deal with the results of the setback, learn from it, and put measures in place to make your systems robust to these sorts of issues in the future:

The real lesson of the event, though, was in how we dealt with its aftermath. In short, we didn’t waste time playing the blame game. After the loss of the film, our list of priorities, in order, were: (1) Restore the film; (2) Fix our backup systems; (3) Install precautionary restrictions to make it much more difficult to access the deletion command directly. Notably, one item was not on our list: Find the person responsible who typed the wrong command and punish him or her.

You’ll be happy to hear that thanks to a crew member who had previously worked at home due to the arrival of a second baby, they discovered that there was still a scheduled automatic task which copied all the movie assets to a special computer setup at her home.

Toy Story 2: Rescued!

Taking a step back, this looks, like so many other of these lessons from Pixar, like an organization that follows the scientific approach: Instead of blaming people, rather analyse and learn from the problems themselves.

On the pitfalls of hierarchy in organizations

In Chapter 9, The Hidden, Catmull writes:

I’ve worked in some highly structured, “hierarchical” environments that inspired top-notch work and a healthy interchange between colleagues. At the same time, there are some hierarchal environments that are a nightmare.

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.

In short: Beware when the pecking order becomes important.

Attain clarity by learning how to combine different viewpoints

From Chapter 9, The Hidden:

So my colleagues know more than I do about what’s going on in any given department at any given moment. On the other hand, I know more about issues that people working in production do not: schedule requirements, resource conflicts, market problems, or personnel issues that may be difficult or inappropriate to share with everyone. Each of us, then, draws conclusions based on incomplete pictures. It would be wrong for me to assume that my limited view is necessarily better.

[text omitted]

When faced with complexity, it is reassuring to tell ourselves that we can uncover and understand every facet of every problem if we just try hard enough. But that’s a fallacy. The better approach, I believe, is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of a complex environment and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints. 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.

In short: Accept that usually everyone will have an extremely limited understanding of any issue. Become great at and foster a culture of combining the different viewpoints of different folks in order to gain clarity.

Beware mental models based on limited evidence and beliefs

Closer to the end of chapter 9, The Hidden:

Related to the previous observation, where viewpoints are limited simply because they are housed in single individuals who can only see what’s visible to them in the organization, limited evidence decision-making can also happen due to people’s “beliefs”.

Somehow, though, this episode led Pixar’s directors to decide that, going forward, they should write the first drafts of their movies and thus be credited as writers. This belief shaped our model of how we should work as a studio, and this, in turn, affected how several of the directors defined what it meant to be a director. The problem was that these were all wrong conclusions, based on a single bad experience. And that led to more problems.

What I take from this is that one should be really careful about the emotions that can be caused by a single event, and even more so when one tries to draw conclusions that feel logical although they are primarily fueled by one’s beliefs.

The Hidden and how to deal with The Hidden

At the end of chapter 9, The Hidden, which is also the last chapter of part 2 of the book, Catmull has the following to say about how to deal with The Hidden, that is, everything in your organization that is normally hidden from sight, because of the fundamental limitations in human communication and understanding:

The Hidden – and our acknowledgement of it – is an absolutely essential part of rooting out what impedes our progress: clinging to what works, fearing change, and deluding ourselves about our roles in our own success.

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 don’t necessarily make anything easier, but they can help us uncover hidden problems and, thus, enable us to address them.

Candor
Accept the sort of honesty by our fellows that can help us to understand our limitations and improve. It makes a huge difference on both sides of the transaction when the candor’s sole intention is improvement, and not placing blame.
Safety
This refers either to the implied feeling of safety of the bearer of criticism, and/or to the safety of an organization which by nature has to change, but does keep its people and its core values safe.
Research
Gather knowledge and measurements from everywhere. Process what is learned, integrate it and act on it.
Self-assessment
The organization, or more accurately the people in it, have to dedicated themselves to continuous and true self-assessment in order to bring any hidden issues to light.
Protecting the new
Give new ideas that are still forming, but could have great potential, the room and the resources to grow. (see chapter 7)

Looking at this list, one would be forgiven for stating that what Catmull is proposing is running an organization like a scientist with a heart.

Eight practical methods towards a sustainable creative organization

Chapter 10

Dailies, or Solving Problems Together

Pixar has worked really hard to integrate deeply into their culture on openness to criticism, both on the giving and the receiving end of the transaction.

This is even more difficult than it sounds: One needs strong leadership, and the consistent and trustworthy message that people should be free to say what they think, and people should be open to all of that feedback, because the single most important goal is to help people and their creative output improve.

Catmull writes:

Dailies are a key part of Pixar culture, not just because of what they accomplish – constructive midstream feedback – but because of how they accomplish it. Participants have learned to check their egos at the door – they are about to show incomplete work to their director and colleagues

He continues further down:

The whole activity becomes socially rewarding and productive. To participate fully each morning requires empathy, clarity, generosity, and the ability to listen. Dailies are designed to promote everyone’s ability to be open to others, in the recognition that individual creativity is magnified by the people around you. The result: We see more clearly

This sounds like a super difficult but amazing achievement in any company that is serious about its people and about the quality that it wants to produce.

Even from my short experience, I know that this can only succeed with unrelenting hard-work and dedication of those who are tasked with maintaining this unique environment that is under continuous strain from the humans that are part of it, and who stand to gain the most by its continuation.

Research trips

This section talks about the interesting phenomenon that for creative people it often feels like the safer choice to mash-up the great bits of previous successes from one’s field. However, this work is by definition derivative and probably mediocre, when the creative person ideally produces a work of art that is new and unique. This latter choice carries risk.

When Pixar was working on the movie Ratatouille, members of the team went to France for two weeks to dine in Michelin-starred restaurants, to visit their kitches and to talk with the chefs.

That sounds like a tough life. ;)

Catmull mentions a number of Pixar movies where team members would travel the globe to understand better the subject of their art, and to have a real shot at authenticity.

I don’t know how many other organizations have this sort of clear motivation or funding for these kinds of far-flung research trips, but what I extract from this method that it makes sense for creative organizations to prioritize research activities that have a high probability of taking team members out of their comfort zones.

Catmull writes:

In any business, it’s important to do your homework, but the point I’m making goes beyond merely getting the facts straight. Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying

The Power of Limits

This technique comes down to imposing limits on the way people work, or rather making the existing limits clear to them, so that they come up with new and interesting solutions:

… the limits we impose internally, if deployed correctly, can be a tool to force people to amend the way they are working and, sometimes, to invent another way. The very concept of a limit implies that you can’t do everything you want – so we must think of smarter ways to work

Catmull tells the entertaining story that every single one of the 90 compact discs in the pile that was collapsed by the character Boo in the movie Monsters, Inc. was in fact perfectly shaded.

This means that the animators hand spent a number of person weeks carefully specifying the full lighting equations for each of those 90 CDs, when the scene was only 3 seconds long, and it was physically not possible for any viewer of the movie to apprecate the detail in the CDs.

While everyone loves attention to detail, those person weeks could have been used to work on something that had more actual impact. (Monsters, Inc. was already a huge success already, so this point is somewhat academic.)

Catmull says that in this case “the desire for quality had gone well beyond rationality”.

They later went on to develop a physical system of popsicle sticks, where each stick represented a person week of effort. During the making of The Incredibles, they would have next to each character the number of popsicle weeks dedicated to the animation of that character. If someone, for example the director, came with a request for some additional work, they would have to decide from which other character or aspect a popsicle stick could be removed to create time for that new request.

This helped greatly in creating visibility of how much time and effort was dedicated to which aspect of the project, and hence helped with the making of good decisions.

Integrating Technology and Art

Pixar is quite uniquely positioned for the almost equal-parts integration of technology and art. Their product, computer animated movies, by definition have to combine these two streams.

Catmull writes:

When everything is functioning as it should be, art and technology play off each other and spur each other to new heights. Given how different the two mindsets can be, it can be tough to keep them aligned and engaged with each other. But in my view, the effort is always worth it. Our specialized skills and mental models are challenged when we integrate with people who are different. If we can constantly change and improve our models by using technology in the pursuit of art, we keep ourselves fresh

For companies that are not pixar, the advice is still very much noteworthy. Engineering-focused organizations can do with more creativity, and creative organizations can do with more engineering.

More generally, the observation that “Our specialized skills and mental models are challenged when we integrate with people who are different” – is relevant and truly important.

Short Experiments

Pixar has a long tradition of making amazing short films, many of which you’ll probably recognize if you see them again.

They intended to use these short films to experiment with new techniques and with new stories, and even to give less experienced colleagues the chance to gain some experience.

However, although the short films ended up reaching neither goal (the full-length movies drove innovation the most; the short films were so different from full-lengths that the experience did not carry over that much), it helped greatly by getting Pixar employees to work together in smaller teams, and most importantly, it enabled Pixar to fail at small scale.

In short, they were able to make mistakes on these relatively small projects, “miniature trains” as Catmull calls them, that helped them avoid “train wrecks with real trains”

In software development, there is a related concept called a spike.

Learning to see

Here he uses the example of the 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, elements of which were taught in drawing workshops given by Elyse Klaidman at Pixar.

In this, people are instructed for example to turn the picture or photo of a face upside-down before trying to draw the face.

When you don’t do this, strong mental models of the human face override what you’re actually seeing, ironically complicating the drawing of a good looking face!

The lesson here is that one should apply similar efforts to enable the elective suppression of one’s mental models, so that it becomes possible on occasion to look past preconceptions and biases in order to see more than one usually would.

Catmull wrote:

The real point is that you can learn to set aside preconceptions. It isn’t that you don’t have biases, more that there are ways of learning to ignore them while considering a problem.

Postmortems

Judging by the amount of text here, and more importantly the amount of energy Pixar puts into their postmortems, this is an important element of their machinery.

They have these postmortems after every movie project. The idea is to retrospectively explore and gather data from the whole project, with the following five goals:

Consolidate What’s Been Learned
It’s usually not possible to integrate lessons as they are being learned during the project. During the postmortem, there is time to put everything together into a larger and coherent body of knowledge.
Teach Others Who Weren’t There
This is obvious.
Don’t Let Resentments Fester
People express their frustrations in a respectful manner. This helps with closure, and moving on.
Use the Schedule to Force Reflection
This is about the preparation for the postmortem being even more important than the postmortem itself.
Pay It Forward
All of the lessons consolidated during the postmortem will be used to safeguard and optimize future projects.

It was surprising to me to learn that these posed quite a challenge at Pixar, as humans would naturally game the format of the postmortem every time. In short, the risk associated with being honest often results in people pulling punches when they should actually be giving criticism.

What they did was to change the format of every new postmortem, in order to maximise the probability of honest feedback and no pulling of punches.

Catmull proposes an additional trick to enable people to give complete and honest feedback:

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.

Continuing to learn

Catmull tells the story of Pixar University, a program inside Pixar where they would arrange classes and workshops in worktime that all employees were free to attend.

Listen:

So what exactly was Pixar getting out of all of this? It wasn’t that the class material directly enhanced our employees' job performance. Instead, there was something about an apprentice lighting technician sitting alongside an experienced animator, who in turn was sitting next to someone who worked in legal or accounting or security—that proved immensely valuable. In the classroom setting, people interacted in a way they didn’t in the workplace. They felt free to be goofy, relaxed, open, vulnerable. Hierarchy did not apply, and as a result, communication thrived.

Here we can see the tremendous power of getting people together in a learning environment. Learning is such a fundamental human activity. Putting people together in learning mode breaks down barriers and brings them closer.

Furthermore:

… to send a signal about how important it is for every one of us to keep learning new things. That, too, is a key part of remaining flexible: keeping our brains nimble by pushing ourselves to try things we haven’t tried before.

If I really had to take a single lesson of this book with me, this would be it.

ABL: Always be learning. You, and your organization.

Summary

I truly enjoyed reading this book, for the following reasons:

  • Just like other humans, I love stories, and this book is full of them.
  • The stories are about Pixar, whose movies, in addition the role they have played in modern culture, I and my children have all tremendously enjoyed, some of them a number of times.
  • The stories are about Steve Jobs, a fascinating and impactful human being.
  • The stories are about Ed Catmull, whose work and name played a role in the computer graphics part of my postgraduate studies, not in the least due to the stories of my fabulous advisor Frits Post.
  • The stories contain many lessons dealing with the immensely challenging work of building and maintaining sustainable creative organizations.

If I had to summarize the advice of the complete book, it would be the following:

Great leaders run great creative organizations with love, and with science.

Contents