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creativity inc

 

When I review books, I do so because they interest me, or occasionally I review books because I am following a theme.

I’ve had an interest, the way one has an interest in a train crash, with Disney for many years. This was solidified by reading James B. Steward’s excellent “Disney War” which details the infighting and board room drama of the Michael Eisner years at Disney. With Pixar’s Co-founder John Lasseter recent taking of a six-month sabbatical, from Pixar and Disney Animation, for unspecified “missteps,” reading about Pixar’s culture and management with the benefits of hindsight sounded extremely interesting.

What I did not expect was a candid and practical guide to managing creative people, and the creative process, from an obviously highly talented manager and successful business man. This is also one of the best general management books I have read in years.

Mr. Catmull, with the help of Amy Wallace, have written an extraordinary management book that is honest, practical, and one that does not gloss over mistakes while still celebrating their company’s culture. What could have been just a retelling of Pixar’s, undoubtedly interesting, and dramatic, history instead is a retelling of that history with a guide to the lessons learned and the mistakes made.

Books about the history of companies are often written by, or in conjunction with, the visionary leaders who have fantastic ideas and make great leaps of intuition. “Creativity Inc., however, is written by a working manager: Mr. Catmull. While visionary in his conception of wanting to make the first 3D computer animated movie, his role at Pixar, and later Disney Animation, has been one of the manager who makes things happen, assembles the people, and allows his people to be as creative as possible. He is not afraid to place caveats on things such as employee engagement and feedback, while at the same time obviously taking these subjects extremely seriously.

While the concepts in the book are legion, and makes the book well worth a second reading, Mr. Catmull’s belief that failure is not only to be tolerated but actively encouraged stands out. While many in management circles treat failure as a necessary evil, Mr. Catmull makes a convincing case that failure is not evil at all but an important and necessary part of the creative process. Coupled with this belief in failure, is that while “honesty” has many moral connotations, an insistence on “candor” when giving feedback, from any source, is central to preserving a creative culture.

Getting people to work together, being honest about the short comings of the processes, and considering culture as a constant and evolving thing makes “Creativity, Inc.” a different type of management book. The fact that almost everyone knows about Pixar, and hold the movies they make in high regard, makes this a very accessible book. It also manages to avoid the saccharine quality of a lot of management books that intersect with the world of Disney (Lee Cockerell’s “Creating Magic” in particular comes to mind.)

For those who have become a bit jaded by management books, “Creativity, Inc.” is for you. This is an honest, dare I say candid, tale that teaches us that all businesses should be creative and that unleashing the creative power of our employees, or at least to stop stifling it, is probably one of the best things we can do as managers for our business and our employees.

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I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message. I decided that it was time to share some of these.

 (Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

Moneyball, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis of the same name, follows the real life story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. In particular, Moneyball documents the Oakland A’s struggles of trying to be successful with a budget a mere fraction of their competitors. The realization of their manger, Billy Beane – played by Brad Pitt, that they either have to “adapt or die” is one that many businesses can relate to. The solution that Oakland A’s adopted was to look at the data about players, which informs hiring and firing, objectively rather than emotionally.

Looking at a problem from outside the box and understanding what a problem actually is, not what you have always thought it was, is a huge lesson for most managers. It is also one that is difficult to teach. However, the lesson of being prepared to do what others will not is one that many from the business world will be familiar with – or at least should be. Overcoming the objections, and down right obstructionist behavior, of those who have not bought into your ideas should also be familiar territory for most managers. The movie treats these issues with respect, and although there is an obvious “good guy / bad guy” dynamic, it is easy to overlook this and see the issues being discussed from both sides.

Since the publication of the book, the statistical approach to fields that have previously been lacking such analysis has become know by the colloquialism “Moneyball.” And although the initially baseball was dramatically changed by Billy Beane and the Moneyball approach, there are signs of it falling out of favor.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the book, or the movie, because of this change in the idea’s fortunes. Indeed it actually signals a misunderstanding of the limitations of the approach and of statistics in general. As is stated in the movie: “The first person through the wall always gets bloody.”

The movie does break some of its own rules for dramatic effect; however, these are minor sins given how excellent the movie is as a whole. Interestingly, the movie also has two of the best scenes I have ever seen about terminating an employee. New managers could do a lot worse than follow Brad Pitt’s advice on the matter that can be found in Chapter 8 at the 1:00:00 mark explaining the right and wrong ways to go about a termination. Chapter 10 at the 1:18:00 mark actually shows Jonah Hill”s character putting that advice to use and it is a highly accurate and realistic portrayal of how a termination should be done.

As a management tool, Moneyball is a great business story cloaked in a sports jacket. Both the good and the bad of analytics are on display here, as well as the difficulty of being a pioneer and trying to overcome entrenched ideas whose only validity is “that’s the way we have always done things.”

You may not like baseball, but this is a smart story, based on a smart book, about smart people. It also has the added advantage of being highly entertaining.

You could do a lot worse.

I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message. I decided that it was time to share some of these.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.

 

Burnt is a great movie. Staring Bradley Cooper, it’s the story of a chef seeking redemption by opening a new restaurant in London and winning a 3rd Michelin star after imploding and ruining his mentor’s restaurant in Paris.

It’s use as a management tool comes from the relationships of running a team and of how not to treat employees. It does contain swearing, so if that is incompatible with your company culture this movie is not for you.

I feel there two ways to use this particular movie. In whole; individually, to help illuminate how abusive management is contagious and ultimately counterproductive and in a general staff meeting. As a tool in a meeting I found the best way was to isolate certain scenes.

Chapter 5: @ 26:30 through to Chapter 6: @ 36:20 – The preparation for the opening of the restaurant. The attention to detail. Staff working at the top of their game, working as a team, and watching that disintegrate due the the behavior of one employee and then the abuse that is untenable.

Chapter 7: @ 40:44 through Chapter 7: @ 43:45 – Again, the preparation and attention to detail and that things have recovered after the events of Chapter 5 and 6. Does this mean the behavior that was seen in chapter 5 and 6 was ok and worked?

Chapter 9: @ 50:58 through Chapter 9: @ 52:23 – Contagion. Demonstrated behavior turns into learned behavior.

Chapter 10 through Chapter 10: @ 56:03 – More contagion, and now it is difficult to control.

Chapter 12: @ 1:11:52 through Chapter 12: @ 1:16:00 – Appalling behavior has a price to pay – even years afterwards.

Chapter 15: working as a team, and working together, is more important than anything else.

It is unusual to see actual work environments, even though this is quite a dysfunctional one, with the real kind of relationships that employees have between each other in a mainstream movie. A thoughtful viewing of “Burnt” should give any leader pause for thought or something to aspire to. And even with taking scenes in isolation it should allow staff to see how bad behavior from anyone can spread and create a workplace where no one wants to work. It is also nice to see a movie where unacceptable behavior is shown for what it is: unacceptable, rather than celebrated.

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