Note: I purchased this book and took these notes to further my own learning. If you enjoy these notes, go buy the book!
Part biography and part business book. Recommended if you have an interest in the creative process and how that interacts with business. Ed Catmull comes across as an honest and reflective leader who, along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, has built Pixar into the amazing company we all know and love.
The best managers:
- acknowledge what they do not know (the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur without that mindset)
- loosen the controls, not tighten them
- accept risk
- trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them
- must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear
Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.
If you’re hearing the truth in hallways, not meetings, you’ve got a problem.
On the benefits of sharing their work with the outside world, when the rest of the industry had embraced secrecy:
“The benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt (and, notably, when we decided upon it, we weren’t even counting on a payoff; it just seemed like the right thing to do). But the relationships and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”
Visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.
Toyota employed a simple approach (one that Pixar would adopt) that transformed the assembly line and improved the resulting product: you don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.
Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.
Even smart people can form an ineffective team. A good team is made up of people who compliment each other.
The Braintrust: a collection of smart, passionate people who are encouraged to be candid with one another.
The Braintrust do not prescribe how to fix a problem, they diagnose. It is up to the director to figure out how to address the feedback.
When building a Braintrust, remember that:
- it takes a while for any group to develop the level of trust necessary to be truly candid and to learn how to give good feedback
- you can’t help people who refuse to hear criticism without getting defensive or who don’t have the talent to digest feedback, reset, and start again
- is something that evolves over time
- even with talented people, plenty can go wrong—watch and protect it continually
When giving feedback, focus on the problem (or the idea), not the person.
If you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offence when they are challenged.
- says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense
- is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem
- doesn’t make demands and doesn’t have to include a proposed fix
- if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not prescribe an answer
- is specific
Telling the truth is difficult but it is the only way to ensure excellence.
Fail early and fail fast.
Be wrong as fast as you can.
Failure is difficult enough without it being compounded by the search for a scapegoat.
Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them.
If you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line—well, you’re deluding yourself.
To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.
Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must build trust over time and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.
Andrew Stanton: “It’s gotten to the point that we get worried if a film is not a problem child right away. It makes us nervous. We’ve come to recognize the signs of invention—of dealing with originality.”
“Ugly Babies” are what Pixar call early mock-ups of films. Ugly Babies aren’t beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will become They are ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.
Feeding the Beast: as a company grows, it creates pressure on itself to keep producing stuff. Fixed costs rise (employees, buildings, bills) and this is the beast that will eat you alive unless you produce stuff. The beast wants to chain you to an assembly line schedule and eats into quality.
Brad Bird on creative organisations as an ecosystem: “You need all the seasons. You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it doesn’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever even have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive.”
Pete Docter: “If I start on a film and right away know the structure—where it’s going, the plot—I don’t trust it. I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And, by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you start.”
Managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.
Pete Docter on when he’s feeling overwhelmed: “One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”
One definition of creativity is ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.’
Self-interest guides opposition to change, but lack of self-awareness fuels it even more.
When people in any creative profession cut up and reassemble what has become before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are what keeps us creating rather than copying.
Postmortems are a way of consolidating all that you’ve learned about a project.
Brad Bird thinks of directing the way he thinks about skiing. If he tightens up or thinks too much, he crashes.
On learning to play the guitar: “If you think, you stink.”
The director’s job is to say, “Land is that way.”
It’s Ok for leaders to change their minds and say “Okay, I was wrong, it’s this way.” As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.
Creative people must accept that challenges never cease, failure can’t be avoided, and “vision” is often an illusion.
When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level.
Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources.
As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.
If someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions.
Finding and fixing problems is everybody’s job.
The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal. It leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.