Every once in a while you read a book that smacks you in the head with inspiration and ideas that can seem so clear, but are also hard to firmly grasp. Creativity Inc, by Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), is one such book. If you lead creative people or work in a creative field, it should definitely be at the top of your reading list.
The book is full of interesting stories and important lessons, and you’ll get a real inside view of Pixar and the decisions and accidents that led to its amazing success. But more importantly, you’ll get a terrific how-to manual for managing creative teams.
For me, Catmull’s reflection gave clear voice to some of my own emerging philosophy, helped clarify things that have been nagging me, and occasionally laid bare wrongheadedness that I had not yet seen. My copy is full of highlighted sections and scribbled margin notes, and I looked forward to writing this post so I could process just a few of them into articulate insights. I’m hoping my reflections here might start a cyber conversation among other L&D people who have read the book.
Here are just three major take-aways from my perspective.
The importance of cultivating true collaboration
Catmull shared three related ideas: First, greatness is born of collaboration. And real collaboration is evidenced by the day-to-day behaviors of teams that work together, not occasional events. Most importantly, candid critique is a critical component of healthy collaboration, so we need to work hard to ensure people can effectively give and receive feedback.
Here’s Ed Catmull on the subject:
“Too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float on the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.” (p. 75)
“Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key.” (p.74)
“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.” (p. 86)
What strikes me when looking at L&D processes and cultures is that don’t often imagine processes that allow for creative ideas to emerge from good tries and critiques.
We sometimes don’t even imagine processes that rely on collaboration, but instead assign projects to individual designers and developers. There is real magic in collaboration, as Pixar’s success can attest. Since I now have a one-person consulting practice, I am very jealous of people who are surrounded by other talented L&D colleagues with whom they can easily collaborate - and I am sad to realize that we don’t actually take advantage of that very often. I know I have to find more collaborators myself, and “working out loud” can make a difference.
We have to find more ways to draw on the talents of our teams to work together toward an outcome rather than working serially to just do their part. We have to be open to hearing critique of our work and be willing to share candid feedback with our peers, and that can be hard.
The good news is that the agile* and successive approximation** design processes that seem to be coming to the fore in our field are more amenable to a collaborative process. We need to be careful that we don’t eliminate the collaborative features of these processes when we implement those design models.
The need to trust the people, not the process.
“We should trust in people, I told them, not processes. The error we’d made was forgetting that “the process” has no agenda and doesn’t have taste. It is just a tool – a framework.” (p. 79)
So true! “The process” can’t tell good work from bad! Our people, on the other hand, are often very astute at sensing or judging what works.
Catmull talks quite a bit about how important it is to trust creative people to do what they do. We can give parameters and get out of the way, and many creative people will be able to work within limits. It strikes me that too many creative teams in L&D are locked down by process, artificial deadlines, and defined roles and responsibilities.
“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.” (p. 134)
L&D has a love-hate relationship with process, I think. We have dozens of models that sketch out the steps that result in instructional products, performance support products, and other outcomes. Many organizations have worked hard to improve process efficiency. But the truth is that our process emerges with the needs of individual projects, outcomes, and clients. I used to joke that we needed to date-stamp our process maps, because they needed to be adjusted so often to account for changing circumstances and new recommendations for improvement.
It’s the people we should trust will get the job done, not the process.
Catmull describes processes that actually allow for (and encourage if needed) a complete re-envisioning of the project – including the entire premise and the flow of the story from which Pixar movies are developed.
Nailing down the outcome too soon is a mistake – creative ideas need room to iterate and find their footing. We think that we can sketch a design immediately after assessment, and that design can be solidified for approval before we begin development. But maybe we shouldn’t push so hard for that flow.
I admit that I have been one who has insisted on final objectives and fleshed out designs before development begins – and that idea sounds smart. It’s now quite clear to me that isn’t how it works. We can agree on initial design ideas, but we have to have room to iterate, change our minds, get brilliant ideas, while we are in the process of developing. And collaboration and candid critiques are important parts of that process.
Pixar has the advantage of working on a closed set while ideas get massaged into shape. We have clients that need to be involved, and a loose creative processes can look pretty messy to them. But Michael Allen’s successive approximation method and others like it demonstrate that there are ways to have clients be completely engaged in an iterative process and still be more than satisfied with the outcome.
How to manage with humility
“I’ve spent nearly forty years thinking about 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.” (p. xv)
Aside from being a terrific how-to manual for managing creative work groups and processes, Creativity, Inc. is a book-length reflection by a senior leader describing his process of growth as a manager – a process that includes significant self-monitoring, deliberate reflection, peer discussion, and planned action. It’s about how to be a humble and thoughtful leader – how to focus relentlessly on one’s self, on what “I” can do to be better rather than on pointing out the flaws in processes, people, and outcomes. Ed Catmull has acted quite generously in letting us into his mind and his meditations on creativity, leadership, and leading creative people.
I love his commitment to leaders as teachers:
“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.” (p. 123)
I no longer have the privilege of leading others in my day-to-day work, but I am often working with learning professionals who see me as an experienced practitioner and potential mentor. I love my generative role as learning facilitator for learning professionals. I recognize that my job is not to tell others what to do and how to do it, but to facilitate an ongoing conversation about how past successes and current innovations can be leveraged for what’s next in L&D. I don’t see my role as consultant and professor as me teaching “them” – my approach is much more facilitative. Catmull gave me a great deal to consider about how to create a positive culture for learning in the engagements I pursue.
At the very beginning of the book, Ed Catmull says that Creativity, Inc. “is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible” (p. xvi). The book helps us understand how to bolster creativity, aspire to excellence, and create a successful, profitable business through great results. there are many more gems than what I tried to capture here, some very personal to my own work and experience; I an sure you will find the same. Highly recommended.
But wear headgear because it might smack you on the head, too.
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. By Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace. (Random House, 2014)
* For more on Agile methodology, look here.
** For more on the successive approximation method, go here.