Creativity Inc

Administrative groups tend to always have the exact, never ending problem. On one hand, they strive for unique and revolutionary answers to the issues of today or the future. However, on the other hand, they need to ensure that they are always making money, and thus they are afraid to take any risks.

Ed Catmull, today’s president of Pixar and Disney Animation studios as well as the co-founder of Pixar, has had to deal with that problem his whole life. Regardless, he has accomplished his life goal of making the very first computer-animated film, which made Pixar are very successful business, thus rescuing Disney Animation Studio from losing popularity.

How did Catmull do it? The book Creativity, Inc. does a really good job explaining how by incorporating anecdotes from the author’s life at both Pixar and Disney and giving tips on how to steer clear from typical traps that suppress the manager’s creativity. Additionally, these tips will teach you how to get your team to bring all of their creativity to the table in order to reach excellence.

Hierarchical structures prevent honest employee feedback, especially if directed at superiors

Nine times out of ten, you probably won’t phone your boss with ideas that you think would help the company. You’d probably be too afraid to or feel that you’re not important enough to talk to management. However, this kind of fear can actually hurt a company because if the right people don’t know about the issues that need to be solved, they continue to be unsolved.

So, what can you do?

Begin by making a feedback system that lets information be shared easily and openly amongst the various levels of the team. For example, Pixar had a “Notes Day” in 2013. The animation company had put a pause on work for every member so that everyone could take the day to work with one another in teams and provide feedback in regards to the business. This day was very valuable to the company since the team members were able to communicate the problems that they had dealt with, which meant that their issues were shared and solutions were found.

However, you don’t want any kind of feedback. You want the best feedback from your team members, so leaders need to make sure that their employees have control over their work. For instance, companies in Japan in the 1940s could be more effective with the basic idea that instead of only giving those with executive positions the power to stop the factory assembly line, any worker could do so just by pulling the chord if they found an issue. As a result, workers boosted their self esteem when they solved a problem by themselves instead of waiting on the answer from their management. It also increased efficiency since it contributed to quicker problem solving.

Employees want to feel as if their opinions and ideas are actually important. Sadly, they are usually too scared to state their opinions because they feel that management will only ignore them or even scorn them. As a result, Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, goes to every staff member separately to listen and get an understanding of their opinions and issues, therefore reassuring them that their thoughts are valuable to them and thus, boosting their confidence.

The fear of failure causes people to prefer familiar routes instead of risking changes

Have you ever worked at an office where an old computer system was replaced with a new one? If so, you know how people are initially hesitant to work on it and when they do finally give it a try, they just complain about how they liked the old one better.

Why do people react that way?

People don’t like change because they think that new and foreign things will provoke them to make more mistakes and we don’t like making mistakes since we are afraid of looking like a failure. That’s why, for example, guitar teachers never tell their students to play a new song without any mistakes the very first time they try. First of all, it is basically impossible and secondly, naturally, we are afraid of failure and thus, could possibly give up prior to even making an attempt.

Teachers understand that students will make mistakes because that’s just what happens when people try new things. This kind of mentality is just as crucial in business. You need to make sure that people aren’t weighed down by their fear of failing so that they will have the confidence needed in order to try out new things.

Since we are afraid of new things, we attempt to really control our future. This is seen in business when companies decide on going the “safe route”, which means making a strict plan in order to deal with the uncertainty of the future. However, as a result, businesses that aren’t flexible have the possibility of missing out on unexpected opportunities.

For example, after Pixar and Disney Animation Studios joined one another, the head of HR at Disney spoke to Catmull with a very descriptive, two-year plan that included their goals and staff recommendations so as to get rid of any fluctuations by carefully following this plan. However, Catmull understood that that was an error. Companies do need to work towards a goal, but they can’t let that goal put barriers around them. As a result, he did not sign the plan in order to remain flexible.

Leaders need to acknowledge their own shortcomings and listen to the views of their staff

Have you ever been in an intense argument where although the other person brings up a logical statement, you continue arguing because you just can’t bring yourself to admit that they are right?

Why do we act like that?

Often, we would naturally rather follow the information that supports our opinions, thus making us ignorant towards other possibilities. In the 1960s, British psychologist Peter Wason proved this with his experiments that demonstrated how we prefer information that backs up our opinions instead of the information that contradicts it. It doesn’t matter whether it is accurate or not.

For instance, suppose you have a cool idea for where you can host the next office party- a boat! Despite this, not everyone supports your amazing idea. Actually, throughout the entire day, three people come up to you in complaint of how dangerous it is to mix alcohol with water while only one person complimented you on the great idea. However, because of confirmation bias, you will most likely acknowledge the praise from one person versus the worry of the other three. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until your intoxicated coworkers start going overboard.

Managers can steer clear from this trap by considering the fact that their employees may have better thoughts than they do. Take, for example, when a member of Pixar had a crazy idea that management had never taken into account.

Typically, animators worked during the entire course of production, but because of the changes that couldn’t be avoided from the initial plan, they continuously had to adjust their animations, which took up a lot of their time. On the other hand, if they had moved the animation tasks to the end of production, the animators could begin their jobs with all of the data that they needed instead of always remaking them, which shortened the work hours for employees.

The managers liked the idea and thus applied it which gave great results.

Employees work harder if they feel they’re contributing to the company’s drive for excellence

Would you contemplate learning quantum physics or Chinese without any obligation? Most likely, you wouldn’t. Although we will all most likely begin something out of curiosity, we will probably quit if it doesn’t help us reach a goal. Therefore, in order for businesses to work at their maximum capacity, they need to make sure that they have a goal to work towards. It doesn’t have to be specific, and can even be broad like “pursuing excellence”, so that employees try to work at their best.

For instance, the Pixar founders’ “passion for excellence” really impacted their work ethic. It made them start working harder to do their best. In fact, they went the extra mile to accomplish that goal.

In the production of Toy Story 2, for example, a few issues came up that endangered their opportunity to succeed. However, since everyone at Pixar had the common goal of achieving excellence, they worked non stop for an entire week to fix the issues. As a result, they ended up completing an amazing movie that made over $500 million at the box office.

Therefore, as you’ve just seen, staff tend to work harder and better to overcome bumps in the road when they understand that what they will impact the process. Take, for example, when Pixar was working on their first movie, Toy Story. The production managers were not looked up to by their employees such as technicians, artists, etc. In fact, they thought that the production managers slowed down the progress of everyone else.

Although they had difficult positions, those managers understood that they were making history in the movie industry with their movie. They saw the value in their position in the movie’s production and knew that it was crucial to this huge achievement in history and therefore, just disregarded their coworkers’ judgements and just tried to keep working to their maximum.

People are more important than ideas or processes, so assembling the perfect team is critical

A lot of people believe that being successful comes from finding as many revolutionary ideas as humanly possible. Although that definitely isn’t harmful, there are other, more crucial aspects to success such as hiring the right employees.

It is no secret that it is more important to have a good team instead of a good idea. In fact, regardless of how great your idea is, how apparent your goals are or how perfected your plan is, if you don’t have the proper team to do the job, you most likely won’t succeed.

For instance, basically everything you purchase, whether it be an iPhone or a great meal, was not made from one single idea, but from the many efforts of a team of people. They are the result of the work of several innovative brains, such as a chef, tech designer, etc. Their minds came together to share their observations and make a successful item. Therefore, you don’t need to make an all-star team, but instead one that has talented people that work well together.

Additionally, a team that is very diverse, instead of one that is homogenous with similar ideas, are typically more successful. This is due to the fact that their dissimilarities actually compliment and encourage one another.

For example, in the 1960s, when Catmull was at the University of Utah, he was a member of a special program where graduate students with a variety of different interests could use the computers provided. They were allowed to work on whatever they wanted and without any set out goals. This diverse group of smart and excited people worked in the same environment, thus creating a very inspiring vibe where they experimented with and worked on a lot of projects, sometimes really late into the night.

This method was incredibly successful. Even the predecessor of the internet was put into this program!

Managers need to trust the people they hire and empower them to make decisions

Did you ever have a manager that would never let anyone take control of a project? Did they always look over your shoulder, analyze everything and micromanage what you did? Then you know that you’d never want to be that kind of manager. That method is not only annoying, but it also restricts people of being independent and that can really impact their creativity, let alone their self-esteem.

A better method would be to let them have the freedom to make essential decisions by themselves. Employees specialize at what they do and therefore, are capable of solving specific issues better than their managers, which is why they were initially hired anyways.

Pixar’s group “Braintrust”, is a good example of this method. This group contains their long-term employees and film-production experts in a variety of fields who are constantly reviewing every movie in the production process. Although they do have the option of making any statements or suggestions, they don’t have to. The director is always in charge so the actual experts control the project and express themselves creatively to the maximum.

However, because your employees are expected to work on their own, it is crucial to make sure that each new employee is bright enough to be depended on that responsibility. You can count on those with real expertise to give the best results and solve issues that come up fast.

Catmull has an unusual approach to hiring people. His rule is to only hire those who he thinks are more knowledgeable than him. He feels that they are the only ones who will be confident enough to use their leadership creatively and don’t need to be watched after. Surprisingly, he has even hired people that were smart and experienced enough to do his job! Some people are afraid of hiring people that could potentially get their job in the future, but Catmull is definitely an exception because he knows that with the people that he hires, he will get the best results.

A manager’s job isn’t to avoid risk and failure but to enable the company to get back on its feet

There are companies that seem like they have to deal with more unfortunate situations than other ones and sadly, you can’t do much with bad luck. However, there are things that companies can do to make sure that those situations don’t impact them too badly.

One way that you can have that reassurance is to integrate recovery techniques into a business plan because it’s difficult to try to just avert failure. Pixar does this by focusing on iterative processes such as accepting the fact that mistakes are just a piece of the process and so all you can do is to attempt to remove them with every new iteration of their projects.

In the center of this philosophy is the belief that the entire team, instead of just one person, is responsible for failure and thus, everyone has to work together to deal with it.

Catmull notes a ton of the issues that came up during the production of Monsters Inc., which was the first movie that Pixar had made without their most experienced director. Despite that, they kept working on it, dealing with every issue that kept coming up until they got it right. Although it was very monotonous and exhausting work, the thought of giving up on the project never came across their minds and instead they just accepted their failures and worked hard on managing them.

Additionally, by letting them fail at the beginning of the project gave them the option of learning from the mistakes so that they’d do better in the future, which is really all that matters in the end. In fact, Pixar believes that failing is a crucial aspect of the iterative process.

To decrease the amount of negative effects of the unavoidable mistakes, they allotted extra time for their team to explore and correct themselves during the development stage of filmmaking. As a result, they can make sure that error correction and reworks are less expensive compared to the mistakes during the production of the movie.

This method in practice makes a lot of sense since we all know that no one is perfect and the best way to handle mistakes is to just learn from them.

Companies need to consider their working environment as a tool for fostering creativity

Suppose, for instance, you walk into a grey, barren office with cubicles that are identical to one another and you do the same thing on a daily basis. Most people would agree with the fact that working in that kind of setting is incredibly boring and yet many businesses seem oblivious to that fact.

The architecture and design of your business’s workplace should encourage creativity instead of boredom. You’d be impressed at how just changing a table can make all the difference.

When Pixar had just started, meetings were held at a long and rectangular table and every seat had a place card. This gave the vibe of unneeded formality and hierarchy since only the people seated in the middle could really engage in the conversation whereas those on those sides felt neglected. However, just by changing the old table for a square one without any place cards allowed everyone to participate and have their voices heard.

On top of that, the design of the environment should reflect the individuality of your employees. When Catmull had first come to Disney Animation when it joined Pixar, he was very saddened by the dull look of the office since each desk looked exactly the same- free from personality. In his opinion, that kind of environment encourages separation and thus hinges creativity. As a result, today, the employees of Pixar get total control of their work area. They can decorate it however they want, regardless of how decorated it is since it should just be a good reflection of them as a person.

Lastly, staff should not have to have the same schedule every day. On the contrary, they should work based on their personal style. For example, at Pixar’s Tools Department, which is where the technology developers and engineers work, employees have two days a month where they can work on any project or issue that they personally are very curious about. Since they are given the time and resources, Pixar makes sure that their staff stays happy while simultaneously, giving them the chance to work on some unique projects that could potentially help the company!

Final Summary

Transformations as well as the ambiguity and instability that comes with it is as unavoidable as it is essential for creative spaces. The culture of a business can only really be creative when there is a spotlight aimed at producing a working team, enhancing trust, and providing an imaginative workplace.

Don’t make your plan too structured.

If it is, then you won’t have room to adapt to changes, should they occur.

Change up your work environment.

It is incredibly simple to become bored and uninterested while you work if your work area is barren and not inviting so steer clear of that by personalizing it.