non-fiction · review

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration


Management books?? Why have they attracted me always? Was it because I always wanted to be on the top of any organization or because I was harassed by one of my client managers way back in 2012? Why did she harass me? Was it because I was ANTI with her ideas and did not listen to her or was I too timid to explain my thought process or the feeling I had that she wouldn’t give an ear to me? OKAY, whatever might be the reasons, when I read this book, SHE was the only one who came into my thoughts. Even though this incident took place sometime in the last month of 2012 and early 2013, those moments still haunt me. Whenever I read a management book, I immediately correlate everything with her be it good or bad she had done. It is not that I’m still doing a research to save my ass and pin -point her mistakes, SHE was a manager with very different approach whom I failed to impress and who also failed to impress me with her witty practices.So, you all must be thinking as to why do I give a big lecture before my review. But the fact is, certain people in life whether personal or professional haunt us forever whether good or bad.And to be very frank, though I hate her even to this day, those three months spent with her  had changed the way I worked completely and I learned how not to behave as a manager  and how not to stoop down so much but to maintain some personal respect or dignity.Certain wrong doings by others, change us too. I became tougher afterward.

This book review would be little different unlike other reviews of mine.I will be summarizing all the chapters of the book and the review would serve as  a single point to understand Ed’s management techniques.

Creativity.Inc is a good read for someone who works on projects that has a longer ETA. Personally I learned many management techniques that can be implemented at work too. Ed had been very transparent in sharing about the work culture in Pixar and his secret of success. This is a must read for people not only in the creativity industry but also for others who want to do something out of the box and have their own time to get stuff fixed.

This book is neither too heavy to read nor too difficult to comprehend. At times, certain examples are too specific to the movies and shots captured.These examples would be understood better by someone who watched those movies.

Ed is someone who believes that for creative inspiration  job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. His Pixar office was designed by Steve Jobs where the meeting room had a long skinny table that hindered communication. This was converted to a square table that not only had a free flow of conversation but also old place cards.He talks about a multi-endeavour step and says that detangling a problem is not as simple as correcting the original error.

He takes the reader to the flashback of his childhood and also the other days that inspired him to take up the animation.When Ed was a child, he used to eagerly wait for the show ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ by Walt Disney on his Black & White RCA. Walt Disney had explained the synchronization of sound with pictures and other techniques.Ed loves Albert Einstein and Walt Disney. Einstein for mastering in explanation of things that were explained very little, Theory of Relativity. Walt Disney for inventing new stuff.Ed was fascinated by the way Walt narrated about Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland on the television.Ed’s conception of interest in animation came from the inspiration of ‘Where do the stories come from?’. An artist drawing Donald duck and how it came to life.

Aftermath of  some of the following events in the America, The Great Depression, World War -II, Korean War, the banks started giving loan, the first organ transplants materialized, the first polio vaccination came into place, artificial intelligence was conceived in lexicon, though the United States was in a full swing, it was threatened by the fact that, the rival USSR had sent their first satellite SPUTNIK I into the earth’s orbit. The USA had considered this as a competition and launched ARPANET that later attributed to the invention of the early internet. Ed at that point of time was a student at the University of Utah which was one of the educational institutions that had the first nodes of ARPANET along with Stanford, UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara. These educational institutions paved a way to the innovation.His classmates in the University had a collaborative atmosphere where they used to piggy bank and push forward the ideas for creativity and invention.Since the students were exposed to IT, his fellow classmates later turned out to be key persons in the different facets of IT like  silicon graphics & Netscape, Photoshop & pdf file format,  OOP,  & GUI. The first innovation that Ed had done was a hand model that was digitized into 350 interlocking triangles. He had used a subdivision algorithm of  the computer to display curved devices. This was called the texture mapping.There was an exchange immersion program of the U of U students and the Disney. Ed flew to Burbank to explain the idea of animation, but Walt Disney failed to approve his idea.Instead, they offered him a  job to design their rides  and of course Ed had rejected this offer.Ed had received a call from NYIT after his graduation program in the U of U.

Enough of these technical details, back to the date of narration, Ed says that it took him 20 years of hard work without which he wouldn’t have been noticeable in the animation field.Managers must accept risk, trust people at work.After Ed got into NYIT, his first boss, Alex, who lacked computer skills but was a visionary.He trusted Ed to choose his own people.He had this proposition “When faced with a challenge, get smarter”.Ed always believed in hiring people smarter than himself.He had created a flat organization and freedom for highly self-motivated people.Ed moved out of NYIT and formed a company of his own along with John and named it Pixar.He believed to engage in a community, publish everything discovered, participate in review papers. He and John also believed in a clarity of vision and what computers could do.They hired managers to run different departments like graphics, video, and audio groups. Okay, to get it straight, the hierarchy is required only when you have a bigger budget and something with a greater impact otherwise flat organization is sufficient.Ed also feels that ‘If someone is getting the story right, visual polish frequently does not matter’.Steve jobs took over Pixar (70% stock for  Steve, 30% for the employees) after he was fired from Apple Inc.He had founded NeXt then.

Quality practices such as  TQC, JIT in Japan & USA had reduced the prices due to the usage of conveyor belt for mass assembly line production. Questions like the following would crop up in order to foster a creative culture.

  • What had been done to achieve success?
  • What could be replicated?
  • What could threaten?
  • How much of success was luck?
  • What happens when new people are in?

In order  to answer these questions, few things need to be considered:

  • Story is the king and not to overlap the story with the technical rendering. Both are two different aspects
  • Assigning a mediocre idea to a good team is preferred to assigning good idea to a mediocre team
  • Team interaction is valued much rather than the individual talent.Hence getting the right team in place has more priority.
  • Trust the people and not the process. Even if the process goes haywire, people would set it right
  • Introspection and quality are required throughout the process
Ed introduces a new word called Braintrust.He says, Braintrust is not a pie- in- the- sky idea but candor.However talented a director is, sometimes he might lose track.  Braintrust is a kind of feedback mechanism to get the stuff back in track.This is something similar to peer review where they raise their game not by being prescriptive, but by offering candor and deep analysis.
How is the Braintrust executed? The directors draw the storyboards of the script and edit them together with temporary voices and music to make a mock-up of the film known as reels.The Braintrust team then watches and discusses what’s not ringing true, tests weak points and then makes suggestions.Likewise, this meeting is convened every 3-6 months, after a constructive feedback, a new version is released accordingly.For a healthy feedback system, power dynamics should be removed and people are made to understand that they as people are different from their idea and they should not be identified themselves with the idea and get too offensive. Rather focussing on just the problem helps.To get into such level of maturity, any group needs to develop such level of trust to be truly candid and to express reservations.This model works if people do not refuse to hear criticism without the fear of criticism, reprisal and learn good notes.
‘Fail early and be wrong as fast as you can.’ One needs to foster a true understanding of failure and make it part of rapid learning rather than fear based and failure averse culture.Fear of failure is the biggest barrier and not the failure itself which comes with the territory.Ed advised to trust the employees and not to embrace secrecy that makes them lose trust on the employer.
According to Ed, A beast is a large group that needs to be fed with an uninterrupted diet of new material and resources to function.An ugly baby is a mock-up film that is not beautiful and immature.Ed calls his film as an ugly baby during mock-up stage that needs to be beautified. The company becomes a beast where it needs to be fed continuously with resources.He brings up a beautiful concept here,  ‘You need to have all the seasons.If every day is a sunny day and it doesn’t rain, things do not grow.Conflict is essential, that’s how the best ideas are tested and survive’. As the beast grows older, fresh talent needs to be fed, hence he brought summer interns and fit them in the corporate budget rather than the production team’s budget to teach them every aspect of making an animation movie. This way new talent can be injected and at a lesser cost.
There was a major revamp when the merger between Disney studios and Pixar studios happened.The employees felt threatened of the merger due to the differences in culture between the two.At this point of time, Ed brought in a philosophy of life.  ‘Life should not be easy.We are meant to push ourselves and try new things which will definitely make us uncomfortable. ‘  He always wants his employees to own their problems and fix them. He wants them to create a response structure that matched with the problem structure and makes them not to ignore the small problems in the wake of the larger ones.
Candor, safety, research, self-assessment and protecting the new are all the mechanisms used to confront the unknown and to keep the chaos and fear to the minimum.There are those few mechanisms that puts the head into a different frame of mind.
  • Dailies or solving problems together
  • Research tips
  • The power of limits
  • Integrating tech and art
  • Short experiments
  • Learning to see
  • Postmortems- consolidate what has been learned, teach others who weren’t there, don’t let the resentments fester, pay it forward
  • Continuing to learn that fear of judgment hinders creativity
The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Blindness, fear of unknown, helplessness and lack of controls are something that needs to be warded off is what Ed believes.For the coziness and ease, people usually try something that worked in the past and duplicate the skills rather than trying something new.
After mergers happen, the culture of the merged companies has to be protected per se.Hence Ed, suggested remodeling the Disney studios by having two-story rooms for brainstorming instead of the executive cubicle on the top floor. The second floor that composed of a secretarial cubicle was renovated with the new offices of Ed and John that had open glass doors to support transparency and open culture and the bottom floor for the other employees.He had removed the contracts that were binding between the employer and employees at the Disney studios.He inculcated the culture in Disney that, employees should not work to eliminate failure.If a solution takes a few days to find, employees should not care so much if there are errors because there is time to fix them.They should care about different ways of getting the product with creativity.
Post merger, when the merged company reached the maturity stage and after making a dozen films, there were three big challenges:
  • Surge in production cost
  • External economic forces put more pressure
  • People were not empowered to speak
To fix these challenges, Ed & the team came up with an idea called ‘Notes Day’ where all the employees were given a day off from work but were asked to come to office and discuss things such as fixing ongoing issues, reminder about collaboration, candor and determination.They had brought in a target to reduce the number of person weeks to make a film from 22000 by 10%.The employees were asked to come up with suggestions based on the target that was mentioned.The notes day was a success since this was led from within the company and employees actively participated thereby bringing down the person weeks to 18500. Ed quoted that ‘Problems are easy to identify, but the source is difficult’.
Ed concluded his book by talking about Steve Jobs, good note about him and how Steve led them by good example with his business acumen skills without which Pixar wouldn’t have existed by just having people with tech skills and creativity.

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