16th Aug. '14

A brief look at Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation

A post by Kari Hakola

Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration

Ed Catmull: “Management is creative activity, not controlling activity. I believe that managers must loosen their controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk, theymust trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them and always they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete.

Only when we admit what we don ́t know can we ever hope to learn it.”
As a young student at the University of Utah, Ed Catmull dreamt of computer
animation – specifically of making a full-length movie using just computers. It took 20 years to realize the dream. Toy Story was released in 1995. It changed the animation movie business forever and Pixar took the industry leader role from Disney.  After Toy Story, Ed was at loose ends. It took a year for a new dream to come into focus – to build company capable of perpetual creativity. At Silicon Valley, Ed had seen many successful companies staffed with brilliant people go down the drain as a
result of major errors, in many cases self-evident errors. 

A new dream

Ed ́s new dream is of management and leadership – how to overcome the unseen
forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. The book is tells his story of the last
20 years and his still ongoing learning process as a leader. It’s a book about open
sharing and ways to crystalize your own thinking.
If you prefer listening to reading link here

At the heart of the book and the lessons it holds is the shared, linear journey
and development undergone by both Catmull and Pixar, the company where
“technology is challenging art, art is inspired by technology”.
The book is loaded with a dizzying array characters and events. This is Catmull’s way
of underlining the fact that whatever his thoughts on management and leadership are,
they’ve been formulated in practice, under pressure and in the frontline. With real
people. This also allows him to show a certain amount of disregard for both trendy, shallow management theories and “Industrial management” with its feverish obsession with efficiency, mechanical processes, metrics, hierarchies and control. Trying to distill Ed’s message into a short summary is risky. It goes against his basic idea that each leader must build a unique reality in his or her own context. But let’s take the risk and look at some his principles and mechanisms.


– Great teams are more important than great ideas
– Hire for potential, not the past
– Hire people who are smarter than you
– Everyone must feel free to contribute ideas. There is no permission needed to
address a problem
– Address any lack of candor immediately
– Get to the bottom of why someone is disagreeing with you
– Find the cause of fear and root it out
– Rock the boat
– If there is more truth is in the hallway than in the meeting room, you’re in
– Don’t let anyone use information as a status symbol
– Don’t hide your problems – share them
– The first conclusion you draw is almost always wrong
You see a pattern emerging, right? A lot of it deals with letting go of your traditional,
unassailable leadership position. Just like No Fear did.


Mechanisms are systematic ways of working. They make the principles real.

– Honesty and candor. In the case of Pixar, there’s a Brain Trust for every
movie. They go over the project, honestly and candidly. They have no formal
power, because at Pixar the director is always the boss, but they are in a
position to speak the truth and make suggestions.
Fear and failure. Renewal requires venturing into the unknown and you must
learn to deal with the attendant feat and uncertainty. Mentoring is a great
mechanism for this.
Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby. Externally, success creates a market for
more product. Internally it convinces a company that they can do it better and
more efficiently. But every new idea is at first an “ugly baby” and must be
allowed to develop in peace. Management needs to provide this protection.
Change and Randomness. Even organizations that profess to embrace change
usually have countless tropes they rely on that have worked in the past. These
tend to gum up the works, eventually. Randomness has a big impact, both
good and bad. In a changing world, the smart thing to do is to let people
make their own decisions and divest authority. No one should have to ask
permission to deal with problems they see.
– The Hidden. It’s what can’t be seen even though it’s right there. Not seeing
it causes successful people to fail for stupid reasons. This section contains
some of the most interesting stuff in the book and sheds light on cognitive
psychology and especially how little of what we “see” is actually something
the eyes observe. Most of it is conjecture and interpretation steered by “mental
models” and the more complex the situation, the worse it gets and complex
situations are what leaders deal with. A leader must find a balance between
the known and the unknown. Mechanisms are fine, but the will to venture into
the unknown is essential. And an understanding of the fact that doing so is
absolutely essential, even though this is where mistakes are made.
– Broadening Our View. Without constant vigilance and effort, individuals
and organizations start to lose their breadth. They start repeating what once
worked. Ed lists a great number of mechanisms Pixar uses to deal with this
issue and how important it is that these mechanisms become rooted in your
organization. Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox, in a way…
– The Unmade Future. In the Pixar system, the movie directors/producers bear
most of the responsibility for delivering the results. The book does a good
job of describing the ways in which various directors and producers deal with
having to navigate the unknown under such pressure.
– Testing What We Know. Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Ed ended up in charge
of Disney animation, too. The companies were kept separate and integration
to a minimum. There were no rules as to what kind of movies each company
made. Both employed about 600 people… Ed really put himself on the line
with this gambit and Disney Animation got its first Oscar in 2013.
– Notes Day. In 2012, Pixar had grown to 1100 people and it was losing
efficiency. Growth had brought territorial rigidity and people had started
thinking and acting narrowly. Notes Day was a way to combat these issues. A
Note at Pixar is a suggestion with merit, one that the person making can stand
behind. On Notes Day everyone had to make one and the company actually
processed a lot of them, too. On their own. No outside consultants involved.
The end result was a workforce committed to some difficult and even painful
changes, a lot of good suggestions and a kick in the organizational pants,
where everyone actually felt responsible and started addressing issues they
saw in their everyday work.

Creativity, Inc. is a heavy book. It’s a well-written and easy read, but the substance is
heavy, a story on multiple levels. At the heart of it is the fact that leading people is not
a shallow endeavor and there are no easy solutions. Management is creative activity, not controlling activity.
That may seem a bit reductionist and it’s easy, at first, to dismiss some of Ed’s ideas
because Pixar is such a unique company and working in a very unique industry. But
if you take these principles and practices Ed has outlined to leadership in general,
you’ll start to notice some very interesting dynamics emerging: openness and
sharing, learning from others, developing your own leadership and its totally unique
qualities… Development involves the unknown, it involves cutting out and it involves
letting go. It also involves creating something new.
The great thing is that people are finally challenging industrial management. No
Fear was a good start. Ed goes far deeper. Bill Fischer went deeper in the book
Reinventing Giants, the story of Chinese Haier Group and Zhang Ruimin, its unique
It all comes down to exceptional individuals and the changes they’ve instigated as
a part of their decades-long journeys. There is no theoretical basis for this kind of
“creative management” – not like the very solid one for industrial management.
Everyone has to walk down their own very difficult and thorny path, which now
includes processing the experiences of these pioneers and putting the appropriate
lessons into practice. People like Ilkka Paananen and many other startup leaders have
chosen this path.

Corporations are very capable of managing efficiency, costs and risk. Growth is the
problem. They have to dig into creativity to generate growth and they must start by
digging into creativity in management and leadership.

Written by Kari Hakola & Arttu Tolonen


Leave a Reply

Share this site: