Cultivate Team Creativity

BOOK SUMMARY: Creativity Inc-Ed Catmull

Toy Story 2 was initially destined for a direct-to-video release. But the passionate crew assigned to the movie rebelled, insisting that their work was being devalued, and that only A-level, theatrical release product should bear the Pixar name.

Monsters, Inc. began as the story of a 30-year-old, unemployed accountant who sees monsters that no one else can see (and who turn out to be the fears he never dealt with as a kid). The director, Pete Docter, and his crew took so many wrong turns before this story found its true north. But each failed approach, each setback, was never treated as if they had failed. Instead, they remained engaged and excited, even in the midst of confusion, and eventually hit on the funny, affecting tale of the sweet behemoth Sulley and his unlikely friendship with a little girl named Boo.

During the making of Toy Story 2, an employee used a computer command that accidentally wiped out the drives where the entire movie was stored. First, Woody’s hat disappeared. Then his boots. Then he was gone entirely. Ultimately, 90% of the film was erased in a matter of seconds. Pixar didn’t try to find and punish the person responsible. Luckily, the movie’s supervising technical director had recently had a baby, which meant that she’d been forced to work more from home, which meant that she’d created her own weekly download system. Thanks to her improvised system, the files were restored, the deadline was met, and the rest is history.

In an attempt to create a more cost-efficient production, Pixar tried to finalize the script for Finding Nemo before the director Andrew Stanton and his crew started making the film. Smart, right? Well, once the early reels were ready, it became clear that serious changes had to be made to the story. In fact, they ended up making more adjustments during production than any other Pixar film. The result: One of the highest-grossing, most critically-acclaimed animated films ever, but no new production process.

For nearly twenty years,
Pixar has dominated its industry, producing fourteen consecutive #1 box office hits, garnering 30 Academy Awards®, and generating $8.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales. The quality of Pixar’s product is obviously unparalleled. But how did a small hardware company struggling to stay afloat turn into the creative powerhouse it is today?

The essential ingredient in the studio’s success is the unique environment that Pixar’s president and co-founder Ed Catmull and his colleagues have built. Based on philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention, these principles should be at the heart of any work environment that strives for originality, fosters problem solving, and pushes its employees to new heights. Here are 7 of his core principles:


Quality is the best business plan.

Quality is not a consequence of following some prescribed set of behaviors. It is a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do. You can say you are going to be a company that never settles, but saying it isn’t enough: You must live and breathe it.



Failure isn’t a necessary evil.

It’s a necessary consequence of doing something great. Uncouple fear and failure. Making mistakes should never strike fear into employees’ hearts. When it comes to creative endeavors, a goal of zero failure is worse than useless. It is counterproductive. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.


People are more important than ideas.


When hiring, give an applicant’s potential to grow more weight than her current skill level. What she will be capable of tomorrow is much more important than what she can do today. Why? Because if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or come up with something better. That’s why people matter.


Prepare for the unknown.

Unforeseen, random events happen. And when they do, don’t waste time playing the blame game. To think one can control or prevent problems or guard against randomness by making an example of someone is naïve and wrongheaded. Instead, empower employees at every level to own the problems and give them the freedom to fix them without asking permission.


Do not confuse the process with the goal.

Making the process easier, better, faster, and cheaper is something we should continually work on—but it is NOT the goal. Making something great is the goal.


Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

Communication structures should never mirror organizational structure. A chain of command is essential, but making sure that everything happens in the “right” order and through the “proper” channels is not efficient.


Give good notes.

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:


A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

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