Book Review: Creativity, Inc.



I’ll have to admit right off the bat that I’ve never been a huge fan of animated movies.  Not really for any particular reason, but I just didn’t watch a lot of cartoons growing up and never really caught on to Disney movies and things like that.  Of course I’m getting a second crack at that as a mom, but our kids aren’t really into them either.  I’ve seen several people recommend Creativity, Inc.  by Ed Catmull, so I added it to my list for 2015.  I’m sure glad I did!

Ed is the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation…both independent companies that are focused on excellence.  The major takeaways I got from this book are related to the setup of the Braintrust at Pixar and the Notes Day that they held a few years ago.  Experience is one thing…evaluated experience is a much more valuable tool.  That’s what this book is all about.  In fact…Catmull did such a fantastic job mapping out the stories of some of the most popular animated movies of our generation, that I am really interested in checking some of them out!

I highlighted several things while reading and have posted my notes here…



  • A fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.
  • As I saw it, our mandate was to foster a culture that would seek to keep our sight lines clear, even as we accepted that we were often trying to engage with and fix what we could not see.  My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world.  That sounds like a lofty goal, but it was there for all of us from the beginning.  We were blessed with a remarkable group of employees who valued chafe, risk, and the unknown and who wanted to rethink how we create.  How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way?  That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.
  • Story is King.
  • Trust the Process.
  • Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
  • 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.
  • Quality is the best business plan.
  • We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.
  • The Braintrust is benevolent.  It wants to help.  And it has no selfish agenda.
  • A lively debate in a Braintrust meeting is not being waged in hopes of any one person winning the day.  To the extent there is “argument”, it seeks only to excavate the truth.
  • It is natural for people to fear that such an inherently critical environment will feel threatening and unpleasant, like a trip to the dentist.  The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.  A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost.  An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participate contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion—and ultimately doesn’t work).  The Braintrust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer—at least briefly—through other’s eyes.
  • A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense.  A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix a problem.  A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix.  But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer.  Most of all, though, a good note is specific.
  • 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.
  • To create your own Braintrust: The people you choose must 1.  make you think smarter and 2.  put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.
  • Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.
  • if you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.
  • To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.
  • When failure occurs, how should you get the most out of it?
  • Who better to teach than the most capable among us?  And I’m not just talking about seminars or formal settings.  Our actions and behaviors, for better for worse, teach those who admire and look up to us how to govern their own lives.  Are we thoughtful about how people learn and grow?  As leaders, we should think of ourselves as teachers and try to create companies in which teaching is seen as a valued way to contribute to the success of the whole.  Do we think of most activities as teaching opportunities and experiences as ways of learning?  One of the most crucial responsibilities of leadership is creating a culture that rewards those who lift not just our stock prices but our aspirations as well.
  • Discussing the thought processes behind solutions aims the focus on the solutions, not on second-guessing.  When we are honest, people know it.
  • Are there ways to prove to your employees that your company doesn’t stigmatize failure?
  • 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.
  • It is management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy—as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run.
  • The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.
  • You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you only stick to the familiar.
  • Creativity involves missteps and imperfections.
  • Include people in your problems, not just your solutions.
  • What is the point of hiring smart people if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?
  • From its genesis to its execution, from the goodwill it engendered to the company-wide changes it set in motion, Notes Day was a success in part because it was based on the idea that fixing things is an ongoing, incremental process.  Creative people must accept that challenges never cease, failure can’t be avoided, and “vision” is often an illusion.  But they must also feel safe—always—to speak their minds.  Notes Day was a reminder that collaboration, determination, and candor never fail to lift us up.
  • 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.  Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier.  But ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.

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