Managing creativity: Let no side win

Ed Catmull

One of my favorite sessions at our “innovation summit” this week in Berkeley was a talk between Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, and my friend and colleague Martin Giles, who took my former beat (“Silicon Valley”) a year ago.

Ed had a soulful, unpretentious, I-got-nothing-to-prove credibility, and Martin did a great job drawing him out but otherwise not interrupting or interfering (that, in essence, is a moderator’s job).

As in any real, good conversation, the chat meandered and is hard to summarize. But the heart of it was about how to “manage” creative types so that they stay creative. Managing creativity, of course, is sort of an oxymoron. But that’s what Pixar, with its unbroken record of box-office successes, seems to be doing.

So, how?

It comes down to many, many extremely subtle gestures and techniques. For example:

Commerce vs art

There is a tension between “commercial” success and “artistic” purity, and Catmull believes that the leader’s job is to ensure that “no side wins”. The tension, in other words, is part of the secret sauce.

Geniuses or teams?

Pixar tries to “protect each film-maker’s vision”, by putting the brain daddy of each project in charge of a team. But Catmull realizes that the notion of one single, over-arching genius idea is “a myth”, and that Pixar’s films are really thousands of ideas, and thousands of problems solved. For that, you need a team.

So everything depends on how well that team functions. Catmull sees one of his main roles as observing teams, and intervening when they are dysfunctional. If the leader loses the confidence of his team, Catmull replaces the leader. He would get rid of a genius, if that genius could not work in a team, he said.

Criticism and power

But even when a team does work, and the leader stays in charge, that director must get honest and hard feedback from his peers. How does one do that? (Finding tough but constructive criticism is also one of the hardest challenges for a writer.)

You put the director in meetings of his peers, but you ensure that nobody has more power than he does. In other words, people may suggest or critique, but cannot order him to make any changes. It is up to the director to absorb the comments and to incorporate or address them in the film. (Again, this is also, in my opinion, the way a writer should relate to his “editor”.)

If the group does this well, Catmull will invite others to make the meetings bigger, so that the newcomers can observe the good dynamic and spread it to other teams and Pixar’s wider culture.

However, he then pays extra attention to see if the original group of critics starts performing, which would kill the magic.

If the group critiques badly — which usually means that they are being too polite — Catmull will take individuals aside and confront them: Why did you not say what you really meant? He calls bullshit on them. So people know that their credibility is on the line.

From fear to context

There was no silver bullet, no single secret or list of “ten steps”. There never is in real life. Instead, the conversation offered a fascinating glimpse into our new, modern work culture.

In the past, workers clocked in and had managers look over them with the tools of power. Bosses ruled with fear, implicit or explicit.

In a creative economy — and Pixar, like The Economist, represents it in the extreme — that would never work. You cannot frighten or threaten people into creativity.

Instead, all you can do is choose people well — for their talent and their teamwork — and then set and maintain a certain context that allows their creativity to come out.

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17 thoughts on “Managing creativity: Let no side win

  1. Interesting. I would be hard to do, but an interesting project would be to look back at successful vs. unsuccessful creative teams and see if it is possible to identify operating styles and traits similar to those described by Catmull. For example, look at the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and see how they managed or mismanaged the nexus between commercial and artistic as well as team dynamics.

  2. From one of Beethoven’s letters:

    “… Concerning the expenses of copying and packing it is not possible to fix him beforehand, they are at any rate not considerable, and you’ll please to consider that you have to deal with a man of honour, who will not charge one 6d more than he is charged for himself. Messrs. Fries & Co will account with Messrs. Coutts and Co. The postage may be lessened as I have been told. I offer you my Works the following ones. A Grand Sonata for the Pianoforte alone £40. A trio for the Piano with accomp of Violin and Violoncell for £50. It is possible that somebody will offer you other works of mine to purchase …” etc. etc.

    It seems Beethoven did it all himself. Not likely then to be dumbed-down, I suppose.

    • That is one of the challenges in looking at the creativity/commercial issue. The meta histories of iconic artists often portray them as bursting onto the scene and changing the world (e.g., Mozart, Wagner) and spending all their time creating and having emotional crises.

      But the reality is that there probably was team effort and a lot of time spent on commercial matters. Shakespeare is a good example–the actors were often a feedback/co-creation mechanism and he spent a lot of time ‘running the business.’

  3. I have always liked the “command and control” work environment.

    If it was good enough in the past, it should be good enough today, is what I say.

    On the other hand, I’m retired.

  4. Yep. Up to the writer to absorb the comments and to incorporate or address them in his/her writing. A tough blurred line difficult to surpass by an insecure writer, even tougher for the experienced one. No exercise in futility though, a humble and mandatory step… towards climbing our own staircase. Where will it lead to? That’s a different ball game, isn’t it?
    Thanks for your diverse and fresh paths of thinking. I enjoy reading you. You seem to be able to ring the bell I was waiting for.
    How’s your neck doing?

    • The neck is hurting — but from children hanging on it today.

      Insecurity! That’s a biggie, as obstacles for writers, editors and other creatives go.

      You’ve got to be very secure to take and incorporate feedback, and to ask for it in the first place, and you must incorporate it in order to become really good.

  5. A literary man who forged a long career giving “hard advice” to “creative types” was Max Perkins, described in “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”, by A. Scott Berg. His “creative people” were Ring Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Taylor Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, and Alan Paton.

    Some of the highlights of Berg’s book are its account of the newspaperman-turned-editor’s turbulent relationship with Thomas Wolfe; the decision to rename Fitzgerald’s novel Trimalchio in West Egg, not Gold-Hatted Gatsby (Scott’s preference), but The Great Gatsby; and his delicate handling of Hemingway’s obscenity-laden The Sun Also Rises.

    How would you like to have your editor trump your objections by saying, “Well, it’s like I told Hemingway … “?

    http://www.nchistoricsites.org/wolfe/perkins.htm

    Perkins: “You can’t know a book until you come to the end of it, and then all the rest must be modified to fit that.”

    • That anecdote about the title “The Great Gatsby” is great for me: It reminds me, as the time approaches when I discuss my book title with my editor, to allow for the possibility that his perspective is better than mine at this point.

      (“Great” is much simpler and paradoxically catchier than “gold-hatted”)

  6. In addition to the points Mr. Catmull makes, I wonder how much a manager of creativity needs to be able to explain the largely inexplicable creative process to a client in a bottom-line, quarterly results sort of way. Is it even his responsibility?

    For example, how does a manager handle feedback from the person footing the bill who wants to have a say? Does he take it back to his creative team? Or is his responsibility to protect them? I would argue the latter, though sometimes the “client” might have some insight that the internal team misses.

    I suppose in Pixar’s case, they can let the results speak for themselves and go with “trust us”. Though establishing that initial success is often the hardest part. If you’re company isn’t called Pixar, how do you get there?

    • Good point, Eliot. And I can’t help but notice that in the case of both Pixar and The Economist, for example, there are built-in “protections” from shareholders and clients. Neither company is listed per se (except as part of something bigger) on a stock exchange, for example, and its bosses have a lot of autonomy….

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