Book Club Book Review

To infinity and beyond: Essential advice to foster creativity across all levels

Does imagination really have no age?

As professional storytellers, we like to think that we’re relatively creative people. We often joke that subjects like math and science weren’t our strong suits, and that this career better caters to our strengths. However, when we actually think of what ‘creativity’ is and how to bolster it within our day-to-day jobs, we might all come up with different conclusions.

Our monthly global book club recently picked up Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. As the former President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, in this book Ed not only explores his journey to Pixar, but also the challenges his teams faced, and the lessons learned along the way.

Read on for some pieces of wisdom Ed provides around the importance of teamwork, collaboration, and how to create an environment where creativity can flourish.

Internal hierarchy? Let it go!

It should come as no surprise that creativity is essential for companies like Pixar. However, creativity is not just left to those creating “traditional” entertainment like movies and TV advertisements. Ed believes that it is crucial to foster a corporate community where creativity can thrive, and ultimately influence long-term success.

Unfortunately, the companies that rely on the creativity of their employees often find themselves choosing to do business the way it has always been done. Why fix what’s not necessarily broken, right? To a degree this is true, but just because a certain method has been proven successful, does not mean that it is the only approach that should be taken.

Ed recalls a time in 2013 where Disney and Pixar found themselves experiencing a period of rapid internal growth following the worldwide box-office successes of Frozen and Monsters University. Seasoned employees that had been with the company from the beginning and new hires were now thrown into the same teams. And for many new members, they were hesitant to challenge the established hierarchy of rules and processes. However, this type of thinking can be detrimental to a company.

To change this behavior, Pixar implemented what Ed called “Notes Day” – a day in which the company stops its operations, and the entire staff spends the day together giving each other feedback about the company. The key to an exercise like this is to allow employees to talk with candor about what they feel needs to be improved upon. Not only does this enable departments to listen to and understand the struggles of other teams, but these open discussions can raise awareness within the wider organization and help employees grow closer.

Implementing a “Notes Day” within your own teams can help establish the mindset that everyone is equal and able to share their ideas freely without fear of judgment or repercussions. And more importantly, foster one’s creativity.

Hakuna Matata – embrace the mantra of “fail early and fail fast”

The idea of what failure is changes throughout one’s life. As a child, failure may come in the form of falling off a bike or not doing well on a math exam (like I said earlier, we all chose PR for one reason or another 😉). For an adult, failure can be more daunting as the consequences of our actions tend to have higher stakes. For us as public relations professionals, failure can include not winning a new business proposal, failing to reach KPIs, or losing a client. Whatever the result, failure is never a good feeling, but rather an important one.

Andrew Stanton, American filmmaker and voice actor at Pixar, repeats the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” These mantras go beyond meaning to accept failure with dignity. Instead, if one isn’t experiencing failure than perhaps, they’re working to avoid it all together. Whether done consciously or unconsciously though, this frame of thinking can cause one to avoid all risk and innovation.

Ed realized that “his job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for things that undermine it.” Part of being a leader within a team means creating a space where peers are not afraid to take risks. Leaders should openly talk about and own up to their mistakes, creating a safe space for others to make mistakes as well. Instead of driving out fear completely, use these perceived failures as an investment in the future.

Champion your teams to “just keep swimming”

There is no arguing that a talented team is crucial to overall business success. Ed stresses though that it’s not just about getting the most talented team, it’s about getting the right team. It’s more important to focus on how a team is performing versus the individual talents within it.

And a part of talented teams is this idea of creating a space where people trust one another to put excellence first. According to Ed, “a hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”

In one of our previous Book Club Reviews, we explored Radical Candor by Kim Scott. In this blog we highlight how good leadership means being willing (and able) to have the tough conversation when it’s warranted. And while the goal is never to offend or hurt someone’s feelings, it’s the opposite of ‘kind’ when you are so focused on avoiding conflict that you aren’t honest with someone who could be doing something better. Leadership should focus on being ‘clear’ with someone in order to propel their growth and development.

Pixar utilizes a system called Braintrust, a group of long-term Pixar employees and film-production experts who gather every few months to assess each movie the company is making. Quite literally their job is to make the beginning stages of every movie “not suck.” But in order for this group to work, the key ingredient of trust is needed. Without it, creative collaboration is not possible.

This same feedback exercise can be implemented in any professional setting. To create a winning team, you must choose people who make you think smarter and can put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.

Foster creativity in your work environment

Throughout his book, Ed consistently champions the idea that the work environment is one of the most important aspects of fostering creativity. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather through a process of collaboration and feedback. And we have learned the importance of failure and how it can actually be a valuable tool throughout the creative process.

As Edna Mode from The Incredibles said, “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

Creativity is out there… go find it!