27 April 2014

Books: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (2014)




In all the years I worked in the book business, one of the largest sections I had to deal with was the Business area. There was so much on so many subjects -management, starting your own business, real estate, stock market- along with just general books written by leaders of the largest, most profitable companies. 

I was never enthralled with the business books that dealt on management, though, because mostly what I saw were tomes about how to squeeze more profit (and thus make Wall Street happy) out of an employee without fully destroying them (and if you did, so what. There was always someone more eager to work harder and longer for a few dollars less). But for me, a lot of those books seemed to gloss over the contributions of staff –including the ones, perhaps, which chose not to be YES men, yet still had bright ideas. These books main themes, in the end, always seemed to endorse a culture of linear logic, of mutated mathematics and tight sphincters when running a corporation. 

Plus my biggest issue was communication; one thing these books always claimed was the key to any company’s growth and survival. Yet, in my experience, especially in my 14 years with the late, great Borders Books, communication was lacking from the top in Ann Arbor to all the stores (including the five I worked in over those years). I’m not sure exactly the reason, though I most likely suspect fear drove these folks never to fully commit to making a stable company. 

But a lot of those leaders, all pasty white men, seemed to embrace an odd style of management, where logic and reason are not considered a proper way to run a company (I mean, is not the first rule of graduate school that workers will crumble in the face of adversity? Just keep hammering them on the head with more and more restructuring and they'll eventually go away). A lot of talented people came and went from Borders -some who wanted to work up the system- only because the system was rigged to fail them. Plus, towards the end, a few Borders staff understood that the tension that always existed between them and management had shifted. The real division was now between the executives and everyone else. For corporate was playing a vastly different game than we were, one with a different set of rules. It became very difficult for them to persuade us that “were all in this together” and motivate us to get behind those clearly unrealistic goals when we knew how different the stakes were for achieving them for us and them. 

But I digress. 

What brought me to read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Studios and Disney Animation, was my love for Pixar's movies. Plus, over the now nearly 20 years of its existence, I've seen many behind the scenes life of the computer animation company and how it seemed to embrace a different culture than most companies, ones where staff had more say in a lot of the inner workings and how company executives tried to understand the idea that it was okay to hire folks smarter than you. 

Catmull was recruited in 1979 by George Lucas to help create and work special-effects images into live-action footage. Lucas knew then that computers were going to help advance film making, but he needed someone to lead the team at ILM. While Catmull had the knowledge to help Lucas out -he studied computer graphics in graduate school -he never managed a team before, especially people –like the film editor team- that was resisting change, but basically not believing the computer would be able to do anything more than what they were already doing. He realized then that a transformative idea, no matter how good, was useless unless the people who had to implement it fully embraced the concept. 

It wasn't until Catmull hired John Lasseter -who had been fired by Disney for basically thinking outside the box- that transformed the team at Lucasfilm. Lasseter, with his never waning energy and his open enthusiasms about the future of animation- like Catmull, he wanted to make a film made on computer- brought the one missing link that was stopping the idea of making a fully CGI movie, the importance of storytelling. While making the 1984 short film The Adventures of AndrĂ© and Wally B, it was Lasseter who solved the biggest problem with the films structure –its lack of emotional tension. By adding a second character to the main one this changed the dynamic of the short and introduced the idea that what all films truly need to connect to an audience –emotion. It became clear then to Catmull, his dream of a fully CGI movie was capable then, because they overcame one its biggest obstacles, which was how to connect the viewer to the film using the same tool live action films have done for a hundred years: make people care about the characters. That emotional arc would be the main tool that would play out through all of Pixar’s films, which is probably why they’ve been so successful (but I also believe that character driven films are more rewarding than plot driven ones).

But Lucas was not interested in making a fully computer animated movie –it was a mere tool to enhance live-action -and eventually sold off Pixar to the legendary Steve Jobs -who was between careers at that time, having been let go from Apple and was still working on NeXT. While Jobs provided the money, Catmull faced his first real dilemma. Lucas was always sort of hands-off; he seemed to understand that talent did not need constant attention. Some were smarter than him and, as always, creative people need space to create. But Steve Jobs was someone completely different. "When I don't see eye to eye with somebody," Jobs had told him, "I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be." That philosophy is great, in some ways, but in a business world where ego and rules of engagement are paramount, Jobs was a thorn in many peoples side (that he was proved right on most things showed what a revolutionary mind he truly had). Now Catmull had to deal with him directly and he wondered how he was going to deal with a man who might fight him on anything and everything Pixar was bound to do towards the future road that would lead to Toy Story.

Of course, eventually Jobs backed down because Catmull understood how to work with him and his wide personality. Sure it would take time, but as he writes "Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn't work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind." Some of these revelations came long after Jobs bought Pixar. He wanted to be heavily involved with the direction of the animation studio then, but came to the realization that while he knew a lot of things on a lot of subjects, he was not a filmmaker. It was his innate abilities and shrewd business sense that was needed and when he came to that conclusion, he became Pixar's biggest supporter when negotiations began with Disney that would lead to Toy Story in 1995 and beyond.

While the success of Toy Story marked a turning point in film animation, Catmull realized there was a serious problem lurking within Pixar, something he had never seen before. When it came to begin work on A Bug’s Life, he was astounded to find that the production managers were not lining up to come back, as the battle lines between them and the artists and technicians had been drawn (no pun intended). And it came down to one simple fact - that the bean counters, while doing their jobs, were impeding good filmmaking. But no one, not one artist or manager came to Catmull to explain this during the chaotic atmosphere that existed when making Toy Story. And this type of mentality exists in almost every company because people fear that their constructive criticism is seen more as an attack on someone's ability than on reason for the disconnect. So he implemented an open door policy that basically said anyone should and could be able to talk to anyone else, anytime without fear of reprimand and reprisals. A very candor policy that, while a great theory for many companies, is never really successful because no one actually thinks it can work. But it did and it successfully changed the culture within Pixar.

There are many bumps along the way as the animation company grows, new issues that are addressed, a lot of new challenges that include the acquisition of the company by Disney in 2006 and the death of Steve Jobs in 2011. At the core though is the belief that workers will work hard for you if you allow them a proper culture in which to accomplish goals. Upper management needs to allow everyone to rock the boat once in a while, to have a voice (you can treat your employees like servants and they’ll love you, tell them they’re servants and they’ll rebel).

What Catmull suggests -how candor and transparency might help all sorts of businesses- is broadly painted here, but I like the idea that (especially) being candid with all folks within a company, including the upper management, which is the key to a more productive company. I mean, living off the wits of your staff in not called leadership.

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