BOOK REVIEW: "Creativity, Inc." by Disney/Pixar's Ed Catmull @ 17 April 2014 03:36 PM


For Pixar and Disney fans, this book is required reading because it details the evolution of Pixar, all the way to the merger with Disney -- with most of the bumps encountered on the journey.

If you wonder "How does Pixar do it?" with an unbroken record of box office hits and the pinnacle of CG animation excellence, Ed Catmull details the achievements and challenges. One challenge was actually the many big achievements.

Catmull strikes me as the "Roy Disney" or "Frank Wells" of the trio of John Lasseter, the late Steve Jobs and himself. Though he is accessible and far from a shrinking violet, he stays mostly in the background as the "business guy" and lets the people of the studio take center stage.

The hard part of reading this book -- and marveling at how Pixar combined innovative management techniques with some classic organizational tenets (even if Catmull doesn't know they existed before) to constantly address issues that never go away -- is wondering just how plausible it is to expect in other work environments.

It has to come from the top down. Pixar evolved its own heritage, which was somewhat in line with Walt Disney, but markedly different in several ways -- especially in that they don't want Pixar to fizzle with the depature/loss of an individual visionary.

But can your workplace allow a "Brain Trust" in which all could speak freely about each other's work without deference to job titles? Can the bulldozers in your group accept exclusion, as Jobs did, because they would throw the free flowing ideas off by their overpowering ways? Can human resources deal with grey areas between departments? Can one or more oppressive and demoralizing "layers" of approval (such as Disney's aptly-named "overseers," be eliminated?

You can read between the lines as Catmull gingerly explains how some could not align with their culture and thus departed. He also admits mistakes, including the fact that he cannot really know what's going on without being accessible to people beyond the syncophants, and how he is vigilant about noticing and listening rather than hiding behind pomp, circumstance and office space.



Some of the book travels into Oprah's book club "self actualization" territory with bromides and visualization exercises that are just as lovely as can be. However, I have seen this sort of thing before. The danger is if organizations use only the superficial material as a smokescreen for pretending to "embrace Pixar culture" at some blue sky meeting, give their version a cute name and launch it with "pep rallies," bells and whistles, -- and yet the organization goes back to where it was before, who is kidding who? You can't just check organizational change off a list and walk off, satisfied that it's over with.

Again, no matter what Catmull and his exceptional, insightful solutions may have done for Pixar, it must be noted that he is the head of the company. One of the most illuminating sections of the book deals with Catmull and the Pixar brass struggling through the muck and mire of a mismanaged Disney Animation. The truth is that, when a flawed administration takes command, even when it seems to have gone away, it still leaves a bathtub ring of like-minded people and ideas that sustain the previous mindset. Catmull and Company were able to cut through to the sincere people and get to the truth, even when -- I am certain -- it was cautiously guarded from them.

But could he have changed the culture if he wasn't the boss? He points out that there was a small faction already at Disney that was struggling to improve the system and creativity -- the "Story Trust." These creavtive people operated "under the radar" but could not make a difference until a change at the top blew the mucus out, allowing them to breathe freely in the sunshine. Small groups like this are everywhere. It's the smart leader that is secure enough to trust the person who isn't necessarily saying what he/she want to hear, but seeks out and trusts those who have true, constructive, caring passion for making a work environment the best it can be.

If you can do that, to paraphrase Kipling, then you've become a success, my friends.
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