Creativity, Inc. – Constant change requires continuous improvement

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and until the end of 2018 president of Pixar Animation Studios shares his story and what he learned along the way. It’s a comfortable read and it’s not pedantic.

Despite the fact that I work for a consultancy company and systems integrator and not for an animation studio there are a lot of learnings in the book that feel very relevant. The three most important insights are:

  • Trust your teams
  • Change is constant and necessary
  • You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it

Trust your teams
The first insight is universal and doesn’t depend on the type of work you do. If you are a leader you should trust your teams and your people.

You are in charge. If a significant problem pops up the person who’s responsible, is ultimately you. Perhaps people weren’t comfortable sharing their concerns with you, or perhaps the processes you put in place don’t have the effect that you thought they would have. If a problem occurs, try to find the cause and therefore the first step to avoid similar problems in the future. To be able to think and act like this requires both self-confidence and a lack of ego. I find this idea very inspiring. When looking for improvements, start by trying to be better yourself.

You should of course also work with your teams to support all team members in their growth. People need to feel empowered to take decisions within their area of responsibility and to find solutions to resolve mistakes. Those solutions can include informing you, or asking for your help, but they don’t necessarily do.

Change is constant and necessary
The world is constantly changing. Hanging on to something that works today and not wanting to change it means you will eventually fall behind. You have to make decisions, even if you’re not sure. If it turns out it’s the wrong decision, admit that you were wrong and adjust the course. Finding ways to experiment can allow you to fail quick and cheap, thus saving time and money.

Because the world is constantly changing it’s also important to keep a learner mindset. It’s not just your organization that has to constantly adjust to the changing world around you. You have to adjust personally too, which means that you need to continue to update your knowledge and skills.

You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it
As a leader, you need to actively look for things that don’t work, in your company and in your leadership. Even if you are looking for potential challenges, you might still miss them. It’s almost impossible to look at your own company and leadership objectively.
Finding the issues in your organization is also made more difficult because issues will often be hidden from leaders. People do not talk to their leaders the way they talk to their peers. Even if you think you are very accessible and open, there will always be a barrier, simply because you are a leader. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though. If you are actively looking to find potential issues you will always find more than if you are not looking at all!

Please note
I enjoyed the book. I’m not a huge animation nerd, but the story was interesting and engaging. Some of the tips are quite specific for companies that have creativity at the core of their business, but many of them are applicable to working with people, regardless of the industry.

I should mention though that in the book Ed Catmull paints a very positive picture of John Lasseter. I had not heard about him, but shortly after I finished the book I found out that he has been pushed out of Pixar and Disney after reports of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and groping female employees. As far as I’ve been able to find Catmull has not distanced himself publicly from John Lasseter, which I think is a mistake.

Finding all this after finishing the book has a significant impact on my feelings about the book. I will not read it again.

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