Monday, September 28, 2020

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

 I was honestly surprised at how well I liked this book. I picked it up because it is the required textbook for a class that I co-teach/provide heavy support for at the College where I work. I’m a huge Pixar fan, and Catmull was one of the three main driving forces in the life of that company, along with John Lassiter and Steve Jobs. That said, business management books are, to say it kindly, not a genre that appeals to me at all. Couple that with the allegations and subsequent ouster of John Lassiter from Pixar/Disney for workplace harassment; these seem to undercut any tips for leadership from someone who partnered with Lassiter for years. That said, if you add a strong dose of zero tolerance for harassment to the rest of the book, there is some really good food for thought here.

It’s hard to argue with the bulk of Pixar’s consistently excellent output. Hearing the behind the scenes story of how they paired technical brilliance with an insistence on stories that work was on one level inspiring. I particularly appreciated the acknowledgement that, despite the brilliance of the people they hired, there was a lot of randomness that was involved in gaining that position. The chapters that dealt with the impact of randomness and of the unknown really reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, but without Taleb’s condescending tone. (I recommend those two Taleb books despite that.) It was refreshing for someone that successful to actually acknowledge that if a few things had rolled a different way (if Jobs had been able to sell them when he initially wanted to, if someone hadn’t made a personal backup for the work done on Toy Story 2 so they could work from home during a pregnancy) that the company could have easily floundered. 

I also liked the policy that anyone in the entire work chain can suggest changes without fear of reprisal. And the policy that people should speak with candor. I think these are keys to a good workplace. They had a day long retreat, or “notes day” which was built around the idea that anyone could make suggestions to improve the culture of Pixar and their processes without worrying that it would get them in trouble. This is where the ideal versus what happened is most easily questioned. In the lead up to notes day, everyone suggested ideas to work on, and these submissions were combined and winnowed to arrive at the smaller number of issues that were addressed that day. I find it hard to believe that no one mentioned Lassiter’s behavior in that first round of suggestions. There is no doubt that Lassiter was incredible at his job, but he also contributed to the negative aspects of the culture that developed at Pixar.

All that said, if you can add some basic idea of non-harrassment and the inclusion of women in the processes that they were excluded from, the advice in this book is very good.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 76/75

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