Creativity Inc

The thesis of this book is that there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process.

Creativity Inc

My aim at Pixar - To enable our people to do their best work. We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.

How to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.

I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.

I had conflicting feelings when I met Alvy because, frankly, he seemed more qualified to lead the lab than I was. I can still remember the uneasiness in my gut, that instinctual twinge spurred by a potential threat: This, I thought, could be the guy who takes my job one day. I hired him anyway.

The act of hiring Alvy changed me as a manager: By ignoring my fear, I learned that the fear was groundless.

When faced with a challenge, get smarter.

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.

At Pixar, our directors gather every few months to screen “reels” of their film—spliced-together drawings, paired with what’s called “temp” music and voices. First reels are a very rough approximation of what the final product will be; they’re flawed and messy, no matter how good the team is that’s making them. But looking at them is the only way to see what needs fixing. You cannot judge a team by the early reels. You do hope, however, that over time, the reels get better.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.

Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea. Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. It is the focus on people—their work habits, their talents, their values—that is absolutely central to any creative venture.

Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.

If we are in this for the long haul, we have to take care of ourselves, support healthy habits, and encourage our employees to have fulfilling lives outside of work.

Supporting your employees means encouraging them to strike a balance not merely by saying, “Be balanced!” but also by making it easier for them to achieve balance.

Leadership also means paying close attention to ever-changing dynamics in the workplace. For example, when our younger employees—those without families—work longer hours than those who are parents, we must be mindful not to compare the output of these two groups without being mindful of the context. I’m not talking just about the health of our employees here; I’m talking about their long-term productivity and happiness. Investing in this stuff pays dividends down the line.

Guiding principles and phrases like ‘Story is King’ and ‘Trust the Process’, while simply stated and easily repeated, didn’t protect us from things going wrong. In fact, it gave us false assurance that things would be okay.

Imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. The handle is “Trust the Process” or “Story Is King”—a pithy statement that seems, on the face of it, to stand for so much more. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often, we grab the handle and—without realizing it—walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.

Once you’re aware of the suitcase/handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere.

  • People attach onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.
  • Advertisers look for words that imply a product’s value and use that as a substitute for value itself.
  • Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top-shelf products.
  • Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless.
  • Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.

When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, which migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning.

To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

Quality is the best business plan. What he meant was that quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do. Everyone says quality is important, but they must do more than say it. They must live, think, and breathe it.

That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t make mistakes. Mistakes are part of creativity. But when we did, we would strive to face them without defensiveness and with a willingness to change.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing.

Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.

On Feedback

The director’s work is reviewed by the Braintrust, a team of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves. The Braintrust has no authority. This is crucial: The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback.

Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope. You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. In other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.

Any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The need to stroke one’s own ego, to get the credit we feel we deserve—we strive to check those impulses at the door. The Braintrust is fueled by the idea that every note we give is in the service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.

Fear and Failure

We need to think about failure differently. When approached properly, it can be an opportunity for growth. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explored the neighborhood.”

The key point here is that even if you decide you’re in the wrong place, there is still time to head toward the right place. And all the thinking you’ve done that led you down that alley was not wasted. Even if most of what you’ve seen doesn’t fit your needs, you inevitably take away ideas that will prove useful. Relatedly, if there are parts of the exploration you like but that don’t seem helpful in the quest you’re on, you will remember those parts and possibly use them later.

If you don’t use what’s gone wrong to educate yourself and your colleagues, then you’ll have missed an opportunity. There are two parts to any failure: There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointment, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it. It is this second part that we control. Do we become introspective, or do we bury our heads in the sand? Do we make it safe for others to acknowledge and learn from problems, or do we shut down discussion by looking for people to blame? We must remember that failure gives us chances to grow, and we ignore those chances at our own peril.

Building Trust

Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure. The Braintrust and various groups within Pixar have gone through difficult times together, solved problems together, and that is how they’ve built up trust in each other. Be patient. Be authentic. And be consistent. The trust will come.

Your employees are smart; that’s why you hired them. So treat them that way. They know when you deliver a message that has been heavily massaged. When managers explain what their plan is without giving the reasons for it, people wonder what the “real” agenda is. There may be no hidden agenda, but you’ve succeeded in implying that there is one. Discussing the thought processes behind solutions aims the focus on the solutions, not on second-guessing. When we are honest, people know it.

Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason—our job is to find the reason and remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

Written on July 30, 2023