Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

Most managers have holes in their knowledge.  Some people are promoted to management based on their skills.  They're the best at what they do in the company, so they are put in charge of other people.  The problem is that these managers have no training in how to handle people.  This is as true of assembly line managers as it is of college presidents.

Other people study management in school, but are ignorant of the processes they are managing.  They are in charge of people who know more than they do, though sometimes they won't admit it.  The world is full of MBAs who are incapable of producing any part of their company's product or service.

This is why there are so many books on business management.  The usual approach is to list things that should be done: Do this and you'll be successful.  Business books often differ in their recommendations, but the authors are convinced that their advice is sound.

Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar and now President of Pixar and Disney Animation, takes a different approach in Creativity, Inc.  As he started out in computer science writing software, he is analytical about solving problems.  However, rather than declare the right way to do things, Catmull instead writes about things to beware of, including things that are unknowable.

Don't measure people by their current skills, but by how much they can grow.  Don't be afraid to hire people smarter than you are.  Understand the reasons behind a disagreement rather than focusing on the disagreement itself.  Try to find the causes of fear in an organization and root them out.  Don't believe you can prevent all errors by planning.   Don't punish failure or no one will try anything new.  Don't measure people by their mistakes, but by their ability to fix their mistakes.  Don't let the organizational structure prevent communication between departments and people.  Don't let one department's agenda override other agendas.  Don't confuse the process with the goal.

Catmull writes about the above using examples from his own career and from Pixar.  On the surface, it reads as if Pixar has managed to overcome problems common to large organizations and has found ways to encourage the staff to focus on the success of the company.   But while Catmull is not shy about Pixar's failures and close calls, I think that there's a gap between the Pixar of this book and the Pixar of reality.

For instance, Catmull talks about having to keep product moving through the pipeline in order to use the staff efficiently, but the need to "feed the beast" in his words often results in going with the tried and true rather than taking chances on new ideas.  As an example, he mentions The Lion King 1 1/2.  "This kind of thinking yields predictable, unoriginal fare because it prevents the kind of organic ferment that fuels true inspiration."  However, Pixar is as invested in sequels these days as any other animation studio.

At times, Catmull is disingenuous.  He implies that Pixar's influence was responsible for the crew of The Princess and the Frog taking a research trip to Louisiana, when in fact Disney had been making research trips for earlier films like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  He gives credit to a Pixar developer for giving his crew time to pursue personal projects at work, while Google was widely reported to have been doing this for years.

Catmull praises Steve Jobs' design of Pixar's building, saying that it was constructed to force people from different departments to interact with each other.  Yet he also discusses a 2013 internal event called Notes Day, and one of the emails Catmull received after it was over said, "I met new people, got completely new points of view, and learned what other departments struggle with and succeed with."  Clearly, the geography of Pixar's building was not enough to fulfill Jobs' intention.

There is also a bit of a Pollyanna attitude.  While there are undoubtedly personal and legal reasons to avoid speaking about some staffing issues in specific terms, the pain and disruption of firings and layoffs is glossed over.  With one exception, the fate of the crew of Circle 7, the studio Disney created to do its own Pixar sequels, goes unmentioned.  There's nothing about the opening and closing of Pixar's Vancouver studio, either.

Catmull implies that directors are only replaced when stories are not progressing or when a director loses the confidence of the crew.  While no replaced directors are mentioned by name, it leaves a shadow over the heads of Jan Pinkava, Brenda Chapman and others who are criticized by implication, but without specifics and without the ability to refute the charges.

Catmull talks about personally delivering bonus cheques to each crew member on Tangled, talking about how important it was to acknowledge each person's contribution to the film.  And yet, after Frozen, now the most financially successful animated film in Disney history, those people laid off after completion have been denied bonus cheques though they contributed as much to the film as the people who were retained.  Disney will undoubtedly rehire some of these people in the future, and their commitment to future projects will be tempered by a knowing cynicism.  So much for team building.

There is much that is valuable in this book.  However, the contradictions in this book underline that no company is perfect and no matter how hard managers try to avoid or eliminate problems, there will always be some.  Catmull is to be praised for acknowledging this, but like everyone else, he's unaware of some of his own mistakes and blind spots.


Shane Skekel said...

Excellent review and interesting choice of a subject. Even though I lost interest in Disney and Pixar around 1998; this may be worth reading.

J Caswell said...

Alvy Ray Smith, one of the original "Pixarians" refutes much of popular Pixar history while still praising Catmull. He doesn't refer to the book.


That said, the book is an excellent illustration of the application of the principals that made Pixar great.

Mark Mayerson said...

Thanks for the link, Jim. A lot of interesting material there.

Anonymous said...

Great and honest review, thanks Mark!

Anonymous said...

Catmull’s book is tantamount to the announcement of his retirement. Who can blame him—he helped lead Pixar to success with it’s early films. But now that the studio has seen it’s best days, he’d rather go out on top than suffer the embarrassment of failure he’s so keen on “learning from.”

Navigating the difficulties of creativity is obviously more difficult as a business grows, and that’s where this book departs from reality. Better to paint the history rose colored now than later. With his regressive and tiresome—not to mention condescending—theories on managing creativity, Catmull paints a top down/collective (read passive aggressive) approach to running a business. A system where the propagation of the {false} belief that everyone’s feelings matter, and that everyone is creative is what makes a business culture and propels success. A system where piling on management—especially management with little or no knowledge or respect for creativity—is an answer in search of a problem as it always (and apparently has at Pixar) created layers of bureaucracy that clog fluent communication and raise the costs of running a business. When the product s become secondary to the “culture” of a business, corporate culture takes hold, and creativity dies. There is no way to manage the inevitable.

Change is good, but when management itself is afraid of change, bigger, deeper problems exist. Especially in what reads like a paternalistic environment such as Pixar. While Catmull likes to refer often to the inevitability of change, the reader must remember that he’s the person making the changes—losing a lot of creatives and creative clout along the way. While he’s not avers to discussing these failures, he’s not as forthcoming at looking in the mirror to understand that the ultimate sacrifice in change must be from within. I’m not sure he’s able to do that based on his comments in this book.

As for the actual writing of the book, it comes off as an academic tome, and not particularly well written. It’s repetitive, especially after the third or fourth chapter. A strong editor might have helped shape this into something more meaningful, but as it stands it reads more like a collection of newspaper articles than a book.

I want to believe the myth he spins, but having worked in many businesses, I know for a fact that it’s just his point of view.

Matthew said...

Mark, great review. I haven't read all of Creativity,inc just yet, but so far your critique of Mr Catmull's assertions is bang on. While most of his diagnostic musings & stories seem very apt, you highlight those that are glossed over with the authors own blinkers. Meanwhile Anonymous commenter #2 here seems to want to ride your coattails and submit his own muddled review. Oh well, the perils of writing on the internet. Needless to say, we appreciate the time used in forming your own paragraphs with a greater clarity. It's why we come here to read them. Thanks again for your articles.

Emergent Animation said...

"I want to believe the myth he spins, but having worked in many businesses, I know for a fact that it’s just his point of view."

Nothing is anything BUT a point of view. Mr. Catmull put those beliefs into practice and has had enough success to show for it to feel they were successful, which is more than most can claim from their management experiences.

Anonymous said...

No. The spin is not his point of view. It's "a" point of view. It's spin. Catmull is behind the times. If he doesn't change, Disney will change things for him. Only time will tell if he's willing and able.

Emergent Animation said...

There's a saying that I like to repeat often, that success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan. There will be many people who claim to know why the quality of Pixar's films dipped after Disney bought them out, and obviously some will blame the very management styles promoted in this book. Others will blame Disney. Who is to know for sure?

Khylov said...

Freddy Riedenschneider, ladies and gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Too bad Ed Catmull left out the part about how he was instrumental in the creation of an illegal cartel that conspired to artificially suppressed the wages of artists, animators and other tech workers for closed to 25 years.

He belongs in prison.

Steve Schnier said...

I've read, enjoyed and recommended "Creativity Inc." to others. Politics, history and dogma aside, there are some valuable tips for those running creative businesses.

And it was an interesting read.