5 books, part 2: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

641 words, 4 minutes.

“Figuring out how to build a sustainable culture … wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”

Ed Catmull is the retired former president and co-founder of digital animation studio, Pixar. Creativity, Inc. is the story of how Pixar overcame the challenges all businesses face to create and maintain a successful culture as the company grew. A culture that could outlast its founders.

google hits

To say there has been a lot written about company cultures is an understatement. 4.2 billion hits in a Google search!

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about company culture for a while. Having started several times to write a blog about it, I couldn’t nail what I wanted to say succinctly enough. The opening quote on this post succeeds where I struggled. That’s the nub of the issue—you can’t just set your company culture up with some words and expect it to survive as you grow. Company culture is like a relationship; it needs ongoing attention to keep it alive and well.

Reviewing my notes for Creativity, Inc. I see there are 96 highlights! This is by far the most highlights I’ve made in a book in recent times. So much of Creativity, Inc. struck a chord with me.

“Even now, forty years later, I’ve never stopped questioning.”

This statement on its own should be a guiding light. Never stop questioning. At some point in our adult lives that seems to happen though. People accept the status quo and chug along. But building a company can’t be like that. Any startup needs to be questioning—with good intent—everything that has gone before, else they cannot hope to compete. How do you differentiate yourself from companies in the same space if you do as they do?

Mr Catmull, again:

“The pricing advice I was given—by people who were smart and experienced—was not merely wrong, it kept us from asking the right questions.”

This complements a section of Thinking, Fast and Slow, where Mr Kahneman talks about ‘anchoring’. It’s important to recognise this can happen and develop a technique for keeping one’s own bias in check.

With that in mind, one of the greatest lessons I took from Creativity, Inc. was about drawing. As part of learning how to use their software internally, they also hired an art teacher to teach people how to draw. There was more to this than first meets the eye:

“Another trick is to ask students to focus on negative spaces—the areas around an object. For instance, in drawing a chair, the new artist might draw it poorly, because she knows what a chair is supposed to look like (and that chair in her head—her mental model—keeps her from reproducing what she sees in front of her). However, if she is asked to draw what is not the chair—the spaces between the chair legs, for example—then the proportions are easier to get right, and the chair itself will look more realistic.”

The idea behind this exercise is to help the brain see what’s really there, and not what it thinks is there. It’s easy to fool the brain, bcse it wnts to mk snse f th wrld, evn f it dsnt mke snse. I love the metaphor of drawing around the chair and frequently use it to challenge my thinking.

Building a company culture is one thing, maintaining it is a whole other mission. Creativity, Inc. goes into how Pixar recaptured their original culture, after the founders realised it was slipping away as the company grew larger. There is a great deal of sound advice in this book, and as expected of master storytellers Pixar, it’s told well. I’ll leave you with one last quote:

“To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

In part three we’ll review Loonshots by Safi Bahcall.