Ed Catmull and the Secrets of Pixar’s Creativity

You’ve seen his face staring at you from the cover of the April 2014 Fast Company magazine as you pass the airport bookstore: It’s Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, behind the words “How to Unleash Creativity”. Anyone would love to have this kind of news coverage: He’s called “A great leader” and “The master” (and that’s just the magazine cover). The issue contains excerpts from Catmull’s new book, Creativity, Inc. It’s a great title. (But it’s been used already: it’s the title of a 2003 book by Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. I have a copy and it’s a good book. But kudos to Catmull for creating a new a ten-year statute of limitations on book titles, I’ll support that.)

I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s innovative processes, culture, and leadership, so I’m going to buy Catmull’s new book no matter what it’s called. Inside the magazine, Rick Tetzeli calls it “the most thoughtful management book ever” and “a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.”

Here are the excerpted passages from the book that stood out for me:

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments… This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad…it has a way of reasserting itself….You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.

Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can….People say they want to be in risky environments…But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

At some point, with any film, the idea you started off with will not work.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I use Pixar as one of my case studies, to make this same point: that creativity always takes a wandering, unpredictable path (the “zig zag”) and that successful innovators know how to trust in that improvisational, emergent process. My book gives advice for how to learn to succeed, and Ed Catmull understands the same core principles of creativity and innovation.