Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Creativity Inc

So you've proven yourself to be technically competent such that you've been promoted to manage other technical people. You know nothing about management; what do you do? Thus begins the management education of Ed Catmull, who would go on to become President of Pixar Animation Studios. He shares what he learned along this journey in his book, Creativity Inc.

Catmull is not one of those "ra-ra" leaders we're used to seeing on business television or as coaches in sports movies. He is quiet and introspective. He respects the role of chance in the determination of a company's success, and recognizes that all managers can do is put the odds in their favour by constantly seeking to improve processes.

In a factory, such a thing is hard enough to do. But when the product you "manufacture" is of a creative nature (such as Pixar's movies), figuring out how to improve and/or become more efficient is much harder. Feedback cycles are longer (it takes years to take a movie from conception to fruition), and you can't always tell whether something was a positive or negative contributor. A lot of management skill is required to understand the science so that the art is allowed to flow.

As Pixar began to displace Disney as the most prestigious animator, Disney decided to buy Pixar, putting Catmull in charge of Disney's animation studio. Catmull discusses what was wrong at Disney and what he had to change in order to get it back to its creative roots.

Michael Mauboussin (a professor and writer whom I respect) calls Creativity Inc the best business book he's read in a long time. While I wouldn't necessarily go that far, I do think it's worth the read if the topic interests you.

One thing that may be biasing me against the book is what I perceive to be Catmull's disregard for his employees. He talks about some of the enormous sacrifices employees sometimes made in meeting company deadlines, and how treating employees well is the key to keeping them happy. But it has recently come out that Catmull used illegal means to keep their salaries down. Catmull appears to have organized a cartel among employers so that Pixar employees were not poached by rival firms.

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