Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Estimate time to read this page: 2 – 4 minutes

Edition Reviewed: Audiobook
Recommendation: If you are concerned with the output of creative teams, yes.

Part memoir, part management book, part history lesson, Creativity Inc is a somewhat meandering account of how Ed Catmull, the founder and President of Pixar turned a love for storytelling and a fascination with Disney into a career in computer science, became the leader one of the most notably creative and productive companies in the world, and eventually became the President of Disney Animation, where he helped the company he once idolized return to its former glory.

It’s also the story of how a computer scientist in the nascent field of computer graphics learned the vital lessons that every tech company seems to need to learn on their own: Everything is always about people…and the only effective way to communicate the value of technology is to tell a good story about people.

In the course of learning these lessons Ed and his partners (John Lasseter and Steve Jobs) created a culture of collaboration where people are free to express themselves, be wrong, figure things out, start over, all while executing the type of large, complex projects that normally “require” massive top-down program management in order to satisfy stakeholders.

The key value of this culture is what he calls ‘candor,’ which he differentiates from honesty, because he doesn’t think that people are being dishonest when they spare each other’s feelings by pulling punches while criticising their work. They don’t just apply this to Pixar’s output, but also the business itself, their technology, and their practices.

They also seem to have a culture of constant self-evaluation. Several times he uses anecdotes of problems Pixar needed to solve, not because of market pressures or cost savings or some other familiar chestnut, but because he felt the culture of Pixar changing in negative ways.  For example, becoming complacent because of success, or entrenched in their practices, or entitlement creeping into their workforce once they had enough notoriety (and production schedule) to attract talent who had only known Pixar as an animated features powerhouse.

The third part of the book that is really interesting is the history of computer graphics, the entertainment business, and Disney specifically, that winds its way through the history of Pixar. There are a few notable characters that intersect with Pixar over its history as well; George Lucas, Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner most notably. Ed offers up an “alternate history” of Steve Jobs’ life during the NeXT years, as well as a window into his skill as a brilliant business strategist, who understood how to create the conditions that could ensure the company’s future, even before they were a powerhouse.

It’s an interesting book full of life lessons from a leader who isn’t so foolish as to think he has all the answers, and if you’re at all concerned with leading a team of creative people to create superior quality output, this is a worthwhile collection of stories.

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