Ed Catmull’s Top Tips on Business Culture and Leadership


Creativity, Inc. is a manual for anyone who strives for originality, fosters problem-solving, and pushes its employees to new heights.

In going through this book, I pulled out takeaways across all the chapters that I will re-read periodically. I give those to you now and highly recommend that you get the book. But if you’ve only 5 minutes, read this instead.


People > Ideas

Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea. 

Honesty and Candor

  • Telling the truth is hard, but in a creative company, it’s the only way to ensure excellence.
  • You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.

How to Give Feedback

  • Focus on the problem, not the person: When criticizing an idea, shift the emphasis away from the source and onto the idea itself.
  • Set up a healthy feedback system by removing power dynamics from the equation. Any successful feedback system is built on empathy.
  • Success = put smart, passionate people in a room, charge them with identifying and solving problems and encourage them to be candid.

Planning, Fear, and Failure

  • Planning is important, but there’s only so much you can control in a creative environment, so be wrong as fast as you can, then pivot/course correct.
  • Uncertainty and change are life’s constants. Accept it, as we do the weather.
  • Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.
  • In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people consciously and unconsciously avoid risk. Foster a positive understanding of failure and the opposite will happen.

Trust

  • Trust is the best tool for driving out fear.
  • Fear can be created quickly. Trust can’t.
  • Trust doesn’t mean that you trust someone won’t screw up — it means you trust them even when they do.
  • A manager’s default mode should never be secrecy. Secrecy = you can’t be trusted.

Hiring

  • Put away your own insecurities and always hire smarter than you.
  • Growth potential > Current skill level

How to Lead

  • People want their leaders to be confident: As long as you commit to a destination and drive towards it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.
  • Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so that if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course.
  • Good managers don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, listen, wrangle, coax and cajole.
  • It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.
  • Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change — it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.

Prepare for the unknown

If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill prepared to lead. — Ed Catmull

  • We each draw conclusions based on incomplete pictures. It is wrong to assume that one’s limited view is better.
  • Hierarchies and structured environments can contribute to the hiding of information. People managing up (and treating those beneath them poorly) can obstruct the leader’s view.

Postmortems

At Pixar, a meeting is held shortly after the completion of every movie in which they explore what did and didn’t work and attempt to consolidate lessons learned.

  1. Consolidate what’s been learned (before you forget it)
    Postmortems are a rare opportunity to do the analysis that wasn’t possible in the heat of the project.
  2. Teach others who weren’t there
  3. Don’t let resentments fester
    Providing a forum to express frustrations in a respectful manner helps people let go of misunderstandings and screw-ups, and move on.
  4. Use the schedule to force reflection
    The scheduling of a postmortem alone forces self-reflection. The time spent preparing for the meeting is as valuable as the meeting itself.
  5. Pay it forward
    A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward.

Continuing to Learn

  • When a company is formed, the founders must have a startup mentality — beginner’s mind.
  • When it becomes successful, its leaders often cast off that mentality because they don’t want to be beginners anymore.
  • Strive to keep beginner’s mind.

Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.

Best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know. Managers must loosen control and not tighten them. They must accept risk. They must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them. And always they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their model could be wrong or incomplete.


I hope you learned something from these takeaways and inspired you to take action.