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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Feast of ideas

In case you’ve been wondering whether I might have disappeared: No, I haven’t altogether disappeared; I’ve merely been deeply immersed for several days in our “innovation summit” at Berkeley’s Haas School.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found it to be easily the best conference by The Economist ever, and one of the best conferences anywhere. More intimate than TED, and just as stimulating. I’m still processing all the ideas I got.

Here is the line-up —¬†from the likes of Jared Diamond (above) and Clay Christensen to Arianna Huffington; from WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg (below) to Pixar’s Ed Catmull.

And even including yours truly: I got to give a 13-minute “Flash of Genius” about … my book.

Matt Mullenweg

My friend Vijay Vaitheeswaran conceived, put together and moderated most of the conference. He did a fantastic job — suave, funny, incisive.

I’ll be decompressing intellectually in several subsequent posts.

Larry Brilliant

Among my personal highlights: I did a “Tea with The Economist” (ie, a short video chat) with Larry Brilliant (above) about the Bhagavad Gita, eradicating smallpox, the worst threats to humanity today and … optimism.

All sessions will be out on video shortly, and I’ll point you to them.

Throughout, the atmosphere was characteristic of The Economist: insightful, thoughfult, intellectual but also humorous, spontaneous, irreverent and quirky. Here, for instance, is our logo, propped up professionally behind Larry as I was interviewing him:

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