Steve Jobs, while making his way through throngs of fans at the 79th Annual Academy Awards that would grant “Cars” its best animated feature film award, turned to colleague Ed Catmull, and remarked “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.” Irreverent, funny (if you forgive Jobs for cultural insensitivity) and more – it was one of those comments that Jobs would say to a loyal colleague like Ed. And it is this kind of perspective taking that made Jobs so brilliant, visionary, and successful and allowed him to see, even at the Academy Awards, the potential for a greater spectacle.
With a new film coming out about Jobs in late October, I can’t imagine better preparation than Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (2014) as a way to get a glimpse of how difficult Jobs could be but also how compassionate, creative, and engaging he could be as well. Creativity, Inc. isn’t about Jobs but about Pixar, the organization he bought from George Lucas, nurtured through difficult times, and ultimately supported all the way to its great successes with Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and others.
I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more discerning book on the impact of organization climate on creativity and innovation. With innovation very much on the radar for advanced economies that are shifting their focus to services and quality of life, for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational organizations would do well to pay close attention to the story of Pixar – how it came to be, how its founders established the open culture that would support creativity, and how difficult it was to maintain this culture over the long haul.
Catmull and his colleagues founded Pixar with the goal of producing the first ever digitally animated film, a goal that was far beyond his or anyone else’s capability when they started on their journey. They created an organization that was partially about its physical space, one that eventually was characterized as Steve Jobs’ “movie,” but more importantly it was about how Pixar approached problems. As Catmull said about Pixar, “we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”
Pixar had a different vision of itself. The staff “realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.” This culture would be characterized by avoiding confining rules, by candor, by assuming equality among all employees, by recognizing and pushing problems down to places where they can be solved, and by adopting a framework that supports talent and excellence. And this kind of creative culture would be guided by leaders who were humble, recognized what they didn’t know, welcomed risk, had the ability to suspend habits and impulses that had the potential to obscure their vision, and cultivated constant learning.
Creativity, Inc. brings great hope to those who seek to innovate by offering many practical examples and tips. As one who sought to bring innovation to higher education in a number of ways (and I still do), I have frequently felt dismissed for seeing things differently than others. I’ve always understood that innovation by its nature is about change and that there will always be resistance to things that are outside the norm. Looking back on some experiences that I viewed as failures is difficult but Catmull helped me find dignity in striving when he said, “creative people discover and realize visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.” Leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative need to realize that, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.”