By: Brianna Valleskey
How do we develop more creativity in our organizations? Most people think of creativity fairly narrowly and only in terms of art or science, but Ed Catmull believes otherwise.
“Creativity is the process by which we solve problems,” said the president of Pixar Animation Studios, “whether that’s through a story, marketing or a relationships between partners and customers.”
Ed is a 20-year veteran of Pixar, as well as the author of “Creativity, Inc.” His ideas challenge conventional wisdom about the creative process, and he was kind enough to share some important creativity hacks during his INBOUND session last week. I thought they were more than worthy of a dedicated blog post.
Ed Catmull’s Advice for Empowering Creative Thinking
Increasing creativity means removing roadblocks.
People often ask how someone can be more creative. Ed said that a better question is, “What management, cultural and other roadblocks are getting in front of being creative?"
By the time Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, it hadn’t produced a major box office hit since “The Lion King” more than a decade earlier. The studio suffered from a lack of introspection, Ed explained. Different organizational groups (marketing, finance, technical, filmmakers, etc.) within the company had different values ― as they should ― but the values of the production team prevailed. While production, itself, was optimized, that structure forced much of the creative strategies to fail.
That forced alignment around the values of the production teams acted as a roadblock for the studio’s creativity. To help solve this problem, the studio leadership (including Ed, Steve Jobs and John Lassiter) created a “story trust” (more on that below) for the Disney team to help prioritize creative values and reinvigorate the team’s process. A few years after that, Disney finally produced its next box office smash, “Tangled.”
Ego is a creativity blocker.
Another secret to increasing organizational creativity is to remove ego from the process. The idea for Disney’s story trust came from Pixar’s own “brain trust,” a group that comes together after the first screening of a new film.
They trust operates on a few very specific principles: It’s peer to peer. Filmmaker to filmmaker. The purpose is to remove management and hierarchy from the room so that the director can make decisions; not Ed or (Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter. The filmmakers are expected to give and listen to honest notes. Removing perceived oversight allows directors to actually hear what people have to say.
Another principle of the brain trust is to carefully observe the filmmaker dynamics: Does everyone contribute? Does somebody dominate? Are they trying to help each other? Is someone afraid to speak? Of course, the brain trust doesn’t function perfectly. But when it does, Ed said, magic happens.
“And by magic, I mean that you feel ego leave the room,” he said. “All the attention is on the problem.”
This is important. Removing ego allows ideas come and go without people becoming attached to them, thus enabling the creative process to flow.
New ideas are fragile. Treat them as such.
Ed claims that all Pixar movies suck at first.
“I don’t mean that because we’re being modest or self-effacing. I mean that in the sense that they suck,” he said with a chuckle.
The first version of “Up,” for example, involved a castle floating in the sky. A king lived there with his two sons, and the people in the castle were at war with the people on the ground. The sons didn’t like each other very much. They somehow go overboard and end up on the ground (in enemy territory), and then come across a large bird. According to Ed, this version sucked. The only thing that came from it was the bird and the word “up.”
The second version had a 20-minute intro. Carl floats away in the house with a boy scout. They land on a lost Russian dirigible that’s painted underneath to look like clowns. That version didn’t work, either. The fourth version brought back the large bird and introduced the films main antagonist, Charles Muntz. The main plot driver, however, was that the bird’s eggs gave everlasting life to anyone who ate them (which is what Muntz was after). The film still wasn’t working. They lost the eggs, whittled down the 20-minute prologue to four and a half minutes of pure gold and produced one of the most-beloved animated movies of all time. (Admit it: That intro made you tear up.)
“This path [of that film] was wildly unpredictable,” Ed said. “New ideas are often fragile and off track. We had to protect that crew while they working on something that wasn’t good, trusting that their motivations were going after the right thing.”
Don’t be afraid of the wilderness.
Ed Catmull probably knew Steve Jobs better than almost anybody else. After he left Apple, Steve purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm (where Ed worked) in 1986 and renamed it “Pixar.” He was also running NeXT computer at the time. Ed watched Steve experience countless failures during this time, but he also watched him learn an incredible amount. Steve’s empathy changed dramatically over that time, Ed said, enabling him to become the person who returned to Apple and made it great.
“This was a lot like the hero’s journey,” Ed said, “where the hero is cast out of the kingdom, wanders in the wilderness, learns and lot and then returns to make the kingdom a better place.”
The hero’s journey refers a classical story arc, and some of our favorite tales follow this template: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz and even The Princess Bride. Ed’s point here is to not be afraid to go into the wilderness (or wander or get lost or attempt something that seems impossible), as it almost always ends up being a period of immense growth.
Believe that what you’re doing makes a difference.
Ed’s final piece of advice for fostering more creativity in our organizations was simple: put purpose behind everything you do.
“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, this means you can modify your reality. You can change the future,” He said, adding that he hoped everyone in the audience would do so.
From all of this, I think we can definitively say that enabling creativity is critical to the future success of any company. I challenge all business leaders to let creativity run wild within their organizations ― to infinity and beyond.
P.S. Ed started his session by saying that Pixar does not make movies for children. The studio makes movies that are intended for adults (but still accessible to everyone). People forget that children live in an adult world, he said, and they’re built for figuring things out. They want to figure things out, and that process of figuring things out is also creative. I found this incredibly clever.
See below for a few books that specifically tackle the topic of creativity.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.