September 2015

The most fascinating parts of Creativity, Inc. have to do with failure. Let me unpack a few of Ed Catmull’s points about failure.

1. Leaders must overcome fear.
At the heart of failure is fear. Leaders must overcome fear of failure themselves, and they must loosen its grip on their followers. As Catmull puts it, “The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts” (p 123). Failure is an opportunity for learning, and an opportunity for creativity. In fact, Catmull says the ideal is to create a culture where staff are empowered—not only to explore new areas, to have room for experimentation and to fail without major consequences, but to break outside constraints to solve problems. There’s an enormous upside to such empowerment: “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them” (p 111). Some of the ways Pixar creates these avenues:

  • Animated shorts, which have lower budgets and give new directors more opportunity to learn story telling and explore the range of technology.
  • Pixar University, which offers classes for all staff across the company to learn drawing, scene lighting or management.
  • Notes Day, where the entire organization once took a day off to work toward solutions to a problem that impacted them all.

2. Leaders must respond well to failure.
The book is worth reading just to catch the story of how an overly-enthusiastic programmer at Pixar accidentally erased the entire Toy Story 2 movie from the company servers, and how a rogue staffer who had previously set up some backdoor work processes managed to save it. When I shared the story of the accidental deletion with my nine-year-old daughter, her first reaction was, “I’ll bet he got fired!” That’s how most CEOs would respond, and that’s the best way to undermine everything you’ve been preaching. Catmull says if employees are given freedom to experiment, they should never be punished for mistakes. “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure” (p 125).

3. The desire to avoid failure will doom your organization.
One of Ed Catmull’s most exciting moments came when Disney bought Pixar and put him and chief creative officer John Lasseter in charge of both animation studios. They found Disney Animation was paralyzed by institutional fear. “For too long, the leaders… placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else” (p 264). There’s no way to create original ideas or to liberate your employees to innovate if error prevention is your driver. That was the case when Disney went 16 years without an animated film coming in first at the box office.

The irony for Pixar, a company that has hit number one with every film, is that they consider failure to be inevitable. They therefore plan for failure. Yes, they guard against it, but they aren’t paralyzed by it. “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail” (p 109).

4. Failure is best done quickly.
How does Pixar keep from failure at the box office? By allowing—or even forcing—failure to happen earlier, when consequences are fewer. Catmull says every film that goes on to success is born an “ugly baby.” It needs a lot of work, and it would be shut down if held up against any standards of success.

Instead of trying to overplan or avoid failure, it’s better to make a decision and see where it goes. This is true for directors and the film-making process, where Catmull says there’s an upside to decisiveness: “The time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it” (p 111).

Catmull also says it’s true at the top of the company. “Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course” (p 228). Catmull intuitively pushes many of the tenets of design thinking. It’s a “ready–fire–aim–fire again” approach that takes a best guess and moves forward with it, knowing you have a better chance of hitting the target the second time because of the lessons learned by missing early.

The beauty of Ed Catmull’s approach at Pixar and Disney is that he raised up an army of empowered problem solvers. That approach allowed him to serve as president over two animation studios at the same time. Here’s how he sums up his leadership style:

If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been defanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval…. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, then everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small (p 164).

My summer reading was pretty diverse. It started and ended with Jesus, then ran on a Second World War theme and borrowed inspiration from the Global Leadership Summit:

  • Christ for Real, by Charles Price
  • The War Magician, by David Fisher
  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull
  • Jesus on Leadership, by Gene Wilkes
  • Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett

One overarching theme was really impressed on me through this reading. I was inspired as I read the accounts of Jasper Maskelyne and Winston Churchill. In one case, such creativity organized toward creating illusions that turned the war momentum. In the second case, such sheer determination and eccentric energy focused in one direction. But something bothered me about the fact that everyone looked to these men, and their teams were ineffective without them. These biographies fall firmly in the camp of Thomas Carlyle, who said in the 1840s, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Wikipedia describes the resulting “Great Man Theory” this way:

a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed biographies about these giants in history who turned the course of history. But I’m getting a bit jaded.

It wasn’t until I read Creativity, Inc. that I put my finger on how I have changed. In Ed Catmull’s critique of Walt Disney, I began to wonder why the legendary animation studio become so ineffective after the great man passed away. The expectations were so high, and so much revolved around Disney’s demanding, energetic presence that the studio just couldn’t keep going afterwards.

When Walt Disney was alive, he was such a singular talent that it was difficult for anyone to conceive of what the company would be like without him. And sure enough, after his death, there wasn’t anybody who came close to filling his shoes. For years, Disney employees attempted to keep his spirit alive by constantly asking themselves, “What would Walt do?” Perhaps they thought that if they asked that question they would come up with something original, that they would remain true to Walt’s pioneering spirit. In fact, this kind of thinking only accomplished the opposite. Because it looked backward, not forward, it tethered the place to the status quo. A pervasive fear of change took root. (p165)

Instead, Ed Catmull’s goal at Pixar—and later at Walt’s animation studio—was to create a culture that would produce greatness even after the founders and visionaries were gone. He wanted to build a company with interchangeable parts. Some of the ideas he explores in his book:

  • “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it” (p xv).
  • “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture… wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job” (p 65).
  • “All we could do at Disney, I knew, was create a healthy creative culture and see what developed” (p 274).

He begins by talking about the importance of finding the right people and getting them to work together in a way that produces great ideas. He certainly accomplished that by assembling an amazing collection of creative directors at Pixar. He then talks about the goal of management to constantly empower those people to solve creative problems together. He promotes the ideas W. Edwards Deming pushed at Toyota, referring to “a democratic central tenet: You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.” (p 51)

Ultimately, Catmull’s greatest success was to bring the ideas of candor and empowerment to the culture of Disney, leading to successive #1 films—”Tangled” and “Frozen”—after 16 years without a box office hit. Rather than replace the existing staff to accomplish this feat, he proudly points out that the studio “was still populated by most of the same people John [Lasseter] and I had encountered when we arrived” (p274).

Let me come full circle, as my summer reading list did. Jesus did the same thing as Ed Catmull did. Or rather, Ed did what Jesus did. He took a ragtag group of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors and spent three years challenging their mindset, changing their hearts and establishing a new culture. He certainly made himself dispensable and created a structure where interchangeable parts would keep the movement going for at least 2,000 years. Granted, we don’t have all the same tools he had available.

And yet, we do. As Jesus told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12) and sending the Holy Spirit (v16). Though he probably wouldn’t say it this way, Catmull simply expounds a form of servant leadership that originally came from Jesus. There’s just something about having someone else say the same things again that makes them come alive and allows us to see them with fresh eyes. For that, I’m grateful to Ed Catmull.

I’m not sure I want to read any more “great men” biographies. I want to read about men and women who built great systems and great cultures that continue to the next generation.