The business of creativity
"In 1995, when Steve Jobs was trying to convince us that we should go public, one of his key arguments was that we would eventually make a film that failed at the box office, and we needed to be prepared, financially, for that day. The underlying logic of his reasoning shook me: We were going to screw up, it was inevitable".
Ed Catmull's recent memoir, Creativity Inc., goes much further than the average book on creativity. Though a lot has been written about the management of creative production, it is seldom drawn from a truly substantial or critical point of view. The majority of accounts published in the field of business studies adopt an optimistic and naive point of view; they reflect a superficial appraisal of creative dynamics, more often than not based on hearsay and rationalizations, via interviews and secondary sources. In many ways, Catmull's 350-page story redefines the field somewhat.
The book begins with an anecdote of recent years, that of a table that sat in Pixar's main conference room, "West One"; a table that Catmull came to hate with passion. The table was, in his words, "long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sit down for dinner", an arrangement most unlikely to generate creativity and inspiration for Pixar collaborators. Whereas hierarchy never was a defining component of the company creatively, the table implied centrality, and thus, important in the conversational flux. One must not, he writes, "confuse the communication structure with the organizational structure", a wise if not often neglected truth of contemporary business.
Back to the future
Catmull moves back and fourth throughout history, taking us to the very first years of the Pixar adventure, when the goal was to produce "the first-ever computer animated movie". But the narrative soon focusses on what has been Catmull's most troubling question since achieving this objective with Toy Story, Pixar's first film in 1995: that of finding a model for assembling a sustainable creative powerhouse. "In 1986, I became the president of a new hardware company whose main business was selling the Pixar Image Computer. The only problem was, I had no idea what I was doing", writes the celebrated executive.
In fact, the difficulties of managing dynamic creative endeavours like animation production are often not what they seem. Even in a structure like Pixar's, processes and reporting can sometimes be overwhelmingly bureaucratic, yet they are meant to substantiate the potential shortcomings of sheer entrepreneurial size. Sitting at the helm of an ever-growing entity, Catmull describes: "As my position changed, people became more careful how they spoke and acted in my presence. I don't think that my actions changed in a way that prompted this; my position did. And what this meant was that things I'd once been privy to became increasingly unavailable to me."
In his search, the inspiration to lead creatively came from great characters, the likes of Walt Disney and his legacy, or from Pixar's initial saviour and lead investor, Steve Jobs. But despite these select few geniuses' contribution (film director and Pixar's artistic director John Lasseter is also worth mentioning), creativity at Pixar truly comes "from everywhere". In this vein, Catmull brings up the influence of Japanese manufacturers, who have historically put a lot of emphasis on each contributor's responsibility in on-site, timely and continuous improvement of processes and products. Perhaps lean manufacturing principles aren't as far from creativity management as we would've thought.
This decentralization of responsibility is key to explaining the success, but moreover in defining the impetus that drives each Pixar employee. Despite the company's perfect track record — every product it has put out has been a creative and commercial success — what Catmull describes in his book is not a recipe, nor a list of quick wins that other managers can simply take home. It is a process of questioning, of trial-and-error, of constant adaptation. "Questions like: If we had done some things right to achieve success, how could we ensure that we understood what those things were? Could we replicate them on our next projects? Perhaps as important, was replication of success even the right q thing to do?", he writes, depicting this ever-ending search that's come to define the "Pixar way".
Candor and the Braintrust
At the heart of such ongoing self-appraisal, one mechanism — the Braintrust — and one principle — candor — largely explain the evolution of the company. The fabrication of subtle and innovative narratives, combined with the repeated reinterpretation of how art and technology interact together, makes these two elements essential. The Braintrust is essentially a brainstorming group, whose variable geometry depends on necessity and creative input from each of its attendees. It is this group who sat in West One, and led to Catmull's first major decision as head of Pixar, the removal of the infamous table. It is based on candor, the key principle at Pixar, that stems from the need for frank and timely communication between all parties around the table. "Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck."
This continuous reworking of scenes, narratives, art and ideas requires timeliness and openness. As projects "suck" for several months, the Braintrust serves to alleviate, "to bridge the divide between art and commerce". Though it gathers the company's best creative and commercial problem-solvers, the group isn't there to solve the director's problem. The dynamic of the Braintrust lies in the belief that, "in all likelihood, its solution won't be as good as the one the director and his or her creative team comes up with".
Braintrust meetings are relatively informal, and candor again acts as a driving force as it must serve to emancipate contributors from the shackles of hierarchy. "In many workplaces, it is a sign of disrespect if someone surprises a manager with new information in front of other people. But what does this mean in practice? It means that there are pre-meetings before meetings, and the meetings begin to take on a pro forma tone. It means wasted time". This peculiar relationship with authority — one that Catmull describes as affecting even him as a consequence of his position — is a consequence of complex work environments. "Even employees with the purest intentions may be too timid to speak up when they sense trouble." But if failure isn't identified, isn't put out there, isn't properly debriefed, how are we to learn, as individuals and as organizations?
We all know what success looks like. If anything, it looks a lot like what Catmull, Jobs and Lasseter have built over the last 30 years. But Pixar's story is only interesting insofar as we learn from it. Not so much what steps have been taken exactly and in what order, but what type of mindset, what kind of philosophy, drove it to become one of the most respected creative companies of the day. It will not be as successful as it is now forever. Success is ephemeral. But with the right toolkit, the right values, and the right to ask questions, it may well last just a bit longer, pushing further the boundaries of the business of creativity.
Creativity Inc. is available on Amazon (16$).