At first glance, the new book about Pixar, Creativity, Inc., seems like a deluxe version of the account of creative enterprise and management with which we have become increasingly familiar. With war stories of perseverance and eventual success in the market, hard-won advice on how to overcome obstacles to creativity (as promised in the subtitle), and a concluding set of leadership principles, my first impression was that this would be an entertaining if inspiring victory lap for a storied creative organization.
Pixar President Ed Catmull, with Amy Wallace, has produced something much, much more. It’s one of the half-dozen best books that have been written about creative business and creative leadership. Ever.
The “Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture,” which close the volume, themselves offer a master class in creative leadership. From managing fear and failure in an organization to protecting new ideas and imposing productive limits, these are 33 gems. Yet with characteristic sagacity, Catmull makes clear how these principles should be viewed as starting points rather than ends to be achieved. Indeed, the book’s last words are to avoid confusing the process with the goal and always to remember that that goal is “making the product great.”
Particularly impressive here is an insistence on linking ideas about creative work to behaviors (even ones that ultimately fail). Many of the ideas here, from fearless ideation and collaboration to tireless communication, are not surprising. However, they are made compelling through tales of their implementation. The tenet of intensive, democratic collaboration appears here as the belief in anyone being able to talk to anyone else at Pixar about their work, for example, and Catmull conveys it in his memorable recounting of how Toy Story taught him the value of bringing together product managers with artists and technicians.
That specific lesson and value also highlights a feature of Creativity, Inc. that is unusual in today’s surplus of writing on creativity and innovation across industries and markets. With product managers, computer engineers and programmers, filmmakers and artists, Pixar has been blessed but also burdened with the necessary coordination of distinct creative cultures. Catmull’s open and supportive leadership, evidenced throughout the book, has surely been a crucial factor in the success of this ongoing collaboration of different kinds of workers. But his account, which consistently celebrates Steve Jobs and John Lasseter (among others), underscores how leadership among partners with complementary if distinct capabilities and even creative backgrounds can add value to a creative organization.
The overall arc of the book, tracing the development of Pixar through nearly four decades, foregrounds a daunting challenge for all leaders: how to sustain creative vitality and excellence over time. Catmull separates his book into four parts: “Getting Started,” “Protecting the New,” “Building and Sustaining,” and “Testing What We Know.” The third section begins with a thoughtful summary of several “models” employed by people at Pixar as their bases for successful creative work. The section then concludes with his recollection of the first days after the 2005 merger with Disney and how Pixar’s creative culture evolved. Drawing together the personal and organizational aspects of creative work in this way is itself instructive; describing how he led this evolution over years yields even more valuable insights.
Reading Creativity, Inc., one can easily appreciate Catmull’s gifts as a leader whose style – deft, open, humble, caring, trusting, purposeful – has built, shaped and sustained an exceptional creative culture. At the same time, his account of Pixar’s ongoing success demonstrates the importance of having brought creative analysis and implementation to the dynamic complexity, of shifting markets and changing technologies, facing all organizations today. That combination of effectively bringing creativity to his leadership challenges and leadership to his firm’s creative work is rare. So is Catmull and Wallace’s exceptional new book.