Creativity Management: the Way to True Inspiration

Chapters One – Four

Summary

Chapters one through four covers the earliest steps to the creation of Pixar. The first chapter introduces Ed Catmull, who is the author of the book and the President of Pixar/Disney animation. It goes over his love of animation and his first experiments in 3D animation, describing programs he wrote for editing as well as limitations he encountered due to limits in the technology of the time.

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Chapter two covers Catmull’s work at NYIT and his hiring of Alex Ray Smith. NYIT was interested in creating animated computer-generated worlds. Catmull was fascinated with this field. He considered Alex Ray Smith to be more qualified to run the business than he was himself, but this did not stop him from hiring Smith. Catmull took it as a challenge to get smarter and better at his job. Later, the text describes how Catmull went to work at Lucasfilm to manage a new computer division of the company. This experience forced him to rethink how he managed people.

Chapter three introduces the role of Steve Jobs in transitioning the company from a special effects division to a hardware company. Taking an example from the post-World War II Japanese assembly-line ethic, Catmull promoted total quality control. Every member of the business was able to bring attention to the faults in the process. These errors would need to be addressed before the project could continue development. He describes it as one of the main lessons he learned at the time: “You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” Later, they begin using their technology to create commercial advertisements, which become the start of Pixar as an animation studio.

Chapter four introduces a group called the “Braintrust.” They are a group inside Pixar created with the goal of the analysis of emotional beats of a movie while not becoming emotional or defensive themselves. This group is responsible for the changes that led to the success of Toy Story 2, among other things. Catmull found that putting a priority on getting the right team was essential to generating creative ideas. The chemistry of the team proved to be more important than getting a good idea for a project.

Major Insights

It is useful to hire people who are smarter and more qualified than you might be yourself because you can use their higher abilities to inspire yourself to become better. As a leader, you should not be discouraged by their skills, and you should not avoid hiring people better than you are.

If one of the members of the team notices a fault in the project, they should be heard, and the problem should be addressed. Members should not be afraid to take responsibility for fixing the issues.

Creating a team with good chemistry can be much more useful than having a good idea. Good team chemistry can help create solutions that none of the team could come up with on his or her own. Being able to clearly understand each other’s ideas and having effective communication between team members creates teams that can save a project during the most critical moments.

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It can be very useful to create special teams within the team to impartially analyze the problems that the project might have. These teams should be able to see the problems without taking those problems personally.

Relation to Strategic Management

During his first managerial attempts, Catmull discovered the value of human capital as a means of competitive advantage. When he decided to hire a more qualified person than himself, Catmull created the first step toward creating his style of management. Realizing that a talented and happy team can add significant value to the project helped him overcome his insecurities regarding his skills. He used this hiring practice as a challenge to improve himself and has done so ever since. This care for the human capital of the company led it to many successes and was crucial in resolving many of the production issues that Pixar later encountered.

It is possible to see how Catmull’s vision for company strategy evolved. At first, he created an environment where every member of the team had the power to address issues without waiting for his approval. Later, when Toy Story 2 met production issues, he realized that it was important to evaluate the project without becoming emotional over the possible changes. This event led to the creation of special teams of employees who impartially evaluated projects and provided alternatives to the presented issues. Also, he found that a team has to have good chemistry and that chemistry might be more valuable than a good idea.

Catmull relies on internal environmental scanning in many chapters of the book. He finds it crucial to know what the team members are thinking about creating a better plan. He also uses the information gathered during the internal environmental scanning to develop teams with good chemistry. Catmull especially values information about possible flaws in the project and is ready to adjust the plans if they need adjusting.

Besides those points, throughout the book, starting almost from the first chapter, Catmull pays close attention to the people he is hiring and managing. Even though technically, this attention can be described as internal environmental scanning in strategic management terms, it is possible to see how it crosses over into other aspects of strategic management. For example, he finds that having a team with good chemistry is more important than having a good idea or plan. His attention to the creation of a productive and creative environment that promotes independent action and confidence in team members bears fruit in such aspects as strategy formulation, strategy implementation, strategy evaluation, and the making of strategic decisions. Even strategic management techniques like SWOT analysis benefit from this attention to the environment.

Chapters Five-Nine

Summary

Chapter five focuses on the concepts of honesty and candor in the workplace. Catmull states that “…societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions.” He finds trust to be a critical factor for people in an organization. Trust gives people the confidence to speak openly to one another, disregarding any perceived power structures. While some companies prefer the employees merely to agree with the boss, Pixar values the opinions of every team member. Catmull writes that it is important to separate yourself from your idea. Identifying with an idea too closely can lead to your seeing criticism as a personal offense. He proposes that a healthy feedback system removes power dynamics from the equation. It is important to focus on the problem and not on the person who brings your attention to it.

Chapter six covers the issues of fear and failure. Catmull presents failure as a chance to learn and grow despite the failure itself. He accentuates the importance of looking at past failures and finding positive outcomes that come from past failures. He writes that fear that comes from failure will only make it worse, especially for a person in a managerial role who tries to outthink failure. It is important to know how to face failure without fear. Catmull believes that being honest about your mistakes helps others to see past their failures. Failure should not stop progress.

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Chapter seven establishes concepts of “The Beast” and the “Ugly Baby.” The beast is described as a “large group that needs to be fed an uninterrupted diet of new material and resources to function.” It could represent the audience that is looking for more products out of your company. On the other hand, the Ugly Baby is a brand-new idea, still unpolished and in need of attention and work. Catmull writes that is important to find the balance between the two. Focusing too much on delivering what the audience wants can lead The Beast to become uninterested in your company while focusing only on innovation would not sustain your business long enough to allow the idea to mature.

Chapter eight concerns self-interest and how it can prevent progress. Catmull points out that once a system has been mastered, its users can become blind to its faults. A user who sees a mistake usually rationalizes it by saying that it is too complex and interconnected to change. The desire to just keep things running as they are prevents people from fixing issues and innovating. As a solution, he proposes allowing people to solve problems without permission and not vilifying their mistakes. Catmull believes that this would bring attention to the problems that can be solved.

Chapter nine shows how the perception of the past can cause people to have a narrow point of view. A successful decision in the past sometimes can equate to this decision being the right course of action. This practice leads to people quickly dismissing all other points of view on the issue, even if they might be more appropriate for the job.

Major Insights

The creation of trust among the team members should be encouraged. Trust leads to an honest conversation between the members of the team, disregarding any perceived differences in the hierarchy between them.

While one can attach oneself to an idea, it is important to separate it from one’s identity. Becoming too attached can make any criticism of that idea feel like a personal attack. A healthy feedback system has to be implemented.

A company needs to find a balance between appealing to a mass audience and creating new and innovative things.

No system is perfect, and mastering one should not be seen as a reason to stop improving it or even replacing it with a better one. Progress should not be stopped, even if it might require a change in the familiar system.

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The team members should not be afraid to solve mistakes themselves, without asking for permission from a higher-up.

Mistakes of the team members should not be accentuated so as not to discourage future independent actions.

Solutions used successfully in the past might not bring the same results today. It is important to consider as many alternative solutions as possible to find the most appropriate solution for the problem.

Relation to Strategic Management

Because of Catmull’s love for environmental scanning, we can see that he values honesty among his team members. This practice concerns honesty not only between team members themselves but also between the team members and the manager. This honesty provides more information to create a more accurate picture of the team’s opinions and ideas about the project. Later, he talks about making a clear distinction between ideas and people. To make this culture of honesty work well within the company, neither the manager nor team member must take criticism personally because it only concerns the project.

Ideas of The Beast and The Ugly Baby can be related to the evaluation of the organizational environment. The Beast could be seen as a representation of the requirements of the consumer in the highly competitive industry of animation. Subsequently, the Ugly Baby could be seen as a long-term plan that could result in an edge above the competition if it is given the right attention and planning. Catmull writes that this attention to established long-term customers should not be the sole focus of the strategy. It is important to have new and unique ideas that may be unfamiliar to the established customer base. This balance makes Pixar a company that sets trends instead of just following them. This idea was partially inspired by Steve Jobs during his involvement with Pixar. In 1995, he recommended that Catmull go public with the company. This move would prevent them from going bankrupt after what Catmull describes as “inevitable” mistakes that Pixar could make. This recommendation also inspired Catmull to realize that unforeseen mistakes are bound to happen when operating a business, and you need to accept that. This acceptance of errors can be seen in his vision for the company. Employees are encouraged to treat mistakes as ways to teach themselves and not as things that should be harshly punished.

In these chapters, Catmull can be seen partially distributing strategy implementation on the team. Instead of controlling the actions of every team member, he is confident that they can take the initiative when it comes to fixing issues with the project independently and without the permission of the manager. He also fosters an environment that does not harshly punish team members, if these actions do not result in success. This approach creates a more efficient process of strategy implementation because the manager can not only focus on large-scale issues but also does not have to sign off on every problem that requires fixing.

While formulating strategy, Catmull prefers to consider all alternatives without relying on previously successful strategies. His approach takes into consideration many of the issues a successful company can encounter during the creation of a new project. Companies like Blockbuster, America Online, and many other previously successful businesses often relied on old, outdated, or incompatible strategies when creating plans for future expansion. Subsequently, these decisions led to plans that did not take external environmental scanning into the equation did not analyze the constantly changing competition, and ultimately, resulted in bankruptcy, takeovers, and other negative consequences.

Chapter Ten

Summary

Chapter ten presents eight different ways Pixar finds new perspectives. The first has daily check-ins to pay attention to the progress accomplished by the team. The second is research trips; research is viewed as an important process largely beneficial to the project. The third is setting limits to focus on the more important aspects. Fourth is the integration of technology and art; Pixar would not exist without their technological backbone that helps realize their art. The fifth is small experiments; new ideas should be tested on a small scale before being implemented. The sixth is learning to see; setting aside preconceptions helps to see a broader picture of the issue. The seventh is postmortems; analyzing what was good and bad from previous projects, recounting issues that came up during creation, and evaluation of this information helps set goals for future projects and realizes limits that were present at the time. Finally, the eighth method of finding new perspectives is continuing to learn; as mentioned previously, Catmull finds it important always to progress and never treat one solution as the only one possible in any given scenario.

Major Insights

The progress of the project should be checked daily and discussed with the team.

Thorough research should be done before the start of a new project. It is always better to have more research than needed as opposed to not having enough.

All aspects of the project should be evaluated, and more attention should go to the essential ones. Limits should be established for the less important aspects to better focus on the more important things.

Technology should be integrated into the work process, be it art, engineering design, or any other type of work that can benefit from technology.

New ideas should be tested on a small scale. Short testing projects help save time in case a new idea turns out to be incompatible with the project.

It is important to have an open mind to new and unfamiliar ideas. If you have a narrow view of things, you will not be able to effectively innovate or obtain alternative and different solutions to the problems that might arise.

The practice of postmortems helps analyze and evaluate the finished project. New solutions can be found to problems that happened during production; successes should be visible after evaluation, as well as failures. Both can help improve the next project.

A person should never stop learning if he or she wants to continue getting new ideas and perspectives. Learning can be hard because sometimes new information clashes with what we have already learned, but it is important to always move forward in life.

Relation to Strategic Management

Once again, Catmull pays close attention to internal environmental scanning. In the first technique, he combines internal environmental scanning with strategy evaluation. At first, he creates a team that is not afraid to point out mistakes and faults in the project. Then, this team participates in daily strategy evaluation. Along with the members of the team, they evaluate the limits of the project, measure its performance, analyze how it varies from previous projects, and adjust the plan if any issues are found. In addition to finding issues with the project, Catmull uses strategic evaluation to find more and less important aspects of the project, creating a more efficient work process.

The way Catmull describes the practice of postmortems can be related to the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) style of analysis:

  • He talks about how during postmortems, the team evaluates aspects that were successful about the project (Strengths);
  • Aspects that prevented it from reaching desired levels (Weaknesses);
  • Aspects that taught the team new techniques or gave them new and innovative ideas that could be used in future projects (Opportunities);
  • As well as aspects that did or could jeopardize the project from the outside (Threats).
  • This analyzed information then becomes a resource for future strategic planning and helps compare future and past projects.

Throughout the book, Catmull is seen as a manager with many of the traits and characteristics of an effective strategic leader. His focus on trust and attention to the team shows his loyalty to his managerial vision and inspires loyalty in the members of the team. Daily check-ins on the project keep him updated on the progress and current status of the team. He is very careful about executing his power; his plans are always ready to change if a team member finds a fault within them. On multiple occasions in the book, he describes how important it is for him to have a wide outlook on life and business. Though over 70 years old, he still manages a company that creates the most revered animated movies in America and perhaps even the world. These movies would not be half as relevant if Catmull had not had a wide perspective. He had been interested in computer animation since the inception of the company, and its realization is still the driving factor behind his motivation. His main trait throughout the book is his compassion for the team; he always tries to consider the views and feelings of his subordinates.

In one of the early chapters, he mentions how important it is to have enough self-control to separate himself from his ideas. While he might be attached to a specific idea, his feelings should not prevent it from changing. In addition to self-control, he finds self-awareness to be a useful trait. Understanding your emotions helps you control them better. The same goes for the members of the team: A person should not take criticism of their idea as a personal attack. His attitude can be described as friendly and sociable throughout the book. Catmull delegates smaller issues that can be solved by the team to the team itself. This ensures more efficient implementation of his strategies. While it is not a part of this review, Chapter 11 showcases how articulate he is at communicating his vision to the team. By 2012, Pixar became a large company with more than 1,100 people, and so ideas that Catmull promoted have started to become lost in the process of managing such a large team. This occurrence led to a special event, Notes Day, during which he outlined his beliefs on how Pixar should operate. His words were heard, and the company resumed its focus on compassionate team management. In conclusion, Catmull can be seen as a consistent strategic leader; his vision has not changed since the beginning of the company but has only evolved with time to address his past oversights and mistakes.

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