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Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Hardcover – April 8, 2014
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“Just might be the best business book ever written.”—Forbes
“Achieving enormous success while holding fast to the highest artistic standards is a nice trick—and Pixar, with its creative leadership and persistent commitment to innovation, has pulled it off. This book should be required reading for any manager.”—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
“Steve Jobs—not a man inclined to hyperbole when asked about the qualities of others—once described Ed Catmull as ‘very wise,’ ‘very self-aware,’ ‘really thoughtful,’ ‘really, really smart,’ and possessing ‘quiet strength,’ all in a single interview. Any reader of Creativity, Inc., Catmull’s new book on the art of running creative companies, will have to agree. Catmull, president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has written what just might be the most thoughtful management book ever.”—Fast Company
“It’s one thing to be creative; it’s entirely another—and much more rare—to build a great and creative culture. Over more than thirty years, Ed Catmull has developed methods to root out and destroy the barriers to creativity, to marry creativity to the pursuit of excellence, and, most impressive, to sustain a culture of disciplined creativity during setbacks and success. Pixar’s unrivaled record, and the joy its films have added to our lives, gives his method the most important validation: It works.”—Jim Collins, co-author of Built to Last and author of Good to Great
“Too often, we seek to keep the status quo working. This is a book about breaking it.”—Seth Godin
“What is the secret to making more of the good stuff? Every so often Hollywood embraces a book that it senses might provide the answer. . . . Catmull’s book is quickly becoming the latest bible for the show business crowd.”—The New York Times
“The most practical and deep book ever written by a practitioner on the topic of innovation.”—Prof. Gary P. Pisano, Harvard Business School
“Business gurus love to tell stories about Pixar, but this is our first chance to hear the real story from someone who lived it and led it. Everyone interested in managing innovation—or just good managing—needs to read this book.”—Chip Heath, co-author of Switch and Decisive
“A fascinating story about how some very smart people built something that profoundly changed the animation business and, along the way, popular culture . . . [Creativity, Inc.] is a well-told tale, full of detail about an interesting, intricate business. For fans of Pixar films, it’s a must-read. For fans of management books, it belongs on the ‘value added’ shelf.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Pixar uses technology only as a means to an end; its films are rooted in human concerns, not computer wizardry. The same can be said of Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull’s endearingly thoughtful explanation of how the studio he co-founded generated hits such as the Toy Story trilogy, Up and Wall-E. . . . [Catmull] uses Pixar’s triumphs and near-disasters to outline a system for managing people in creative businesses—one in which candid criticism is delivered sensitively, while individuality and autonomy are not strangled by a robotic corporate culture.”—Financial Times
“A wonderful new book . . . Unlike most books written by founders, this isn’t some myth-heavy legacy project—it’s far closer to a blueprint. Catmull takes us inside the Pixar ecosystem and shows how they build and refine excellence, in revelatory detail. . . . If you do creative work, you should read it, now.”—Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code
“A superb debut intended for managers in all fields of endeavor . . . He takes readers inside candid discussions and retreats at which participants, assuming the early versions of movies are bad, explore ways to improve them. Unusually rich in ideas, insights and experiences, the book celebrates the benefits of an open, nurturing work environment. An immensely readable and rewarding book that will challenge and inspire readers to make their workplaces hotbeds of creativity.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Punctuated with surprising tales of how the company’s films were developed and the company’s financial struggles, Catmull shares insights about harnessing talent, creating teams, protecting the creative process, candid communications, organizational structures, alignment, and the importance of storytelling. . . . [Creativity, Inc.] will delight and inspire creative individuals and their managers, as well as anyone who wants to work ‘in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving.’”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“For anyone managing anything, and particularly those trying to manage creative teams, Catmull is like a kind, smart godfather guiding us toward managing wisely, without losing our souls, and in a way that works toward greatness. Perhaps it’s all Up from there.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Many have attempted to formulate and categorize inspiration and creativity. What Ed Catmull shares instead is his astute experience that creativity isn’t strictly a well of ideas, but an alchemy of people. In Creativity, Inc. Ed reveals, with commonsense specificity and honesty, examples of how not to get in your own way and how to realize a creative coalescence of art, business, and innovation.”—George Lucas
“This is the best book ever written on what it takes to build a creative organization. It is the best because Catmull’s wisdom, modesty, and self-awareness fill every page. He shows how Pixar’s greatness results from connecting the specific little things they do (mostly things that anyone can do in any organization) to the big goal that drives everyone in the company: making films that make them feel proud of one another.”—Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of The No A**hole Rule and co-author of Scaling Up Excellence
About the Author
Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He has been honored with five Academy Awards, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of computer graphics. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.
Amy Wallace is a journalist whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Wired, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Magazine. She currently serves as editor-at-large at Los Angeles Times magazine. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times and wrote a monthly column for The New York Times Sunday Business section. She lives in Los Angeles.
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There is a vast literature out there about how individual people can tap into their natural, God-given creativity. There’s no one best book in this crop, but if you find one that works for you, that one’s the best as far as you’re concerned.
There’s not a lot about how organizations and leaders can unleash creativity and most of it is platitudes on parade. We’re told to “fail fast and fail often” as if failing was the point. It’s not. Learning is the point. We’re told to tell people they should not be afraid to fail. What nonsense. Nobody likes to fail, and if they’re afraid to fail, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. We’re also given that advice as if there is an alternative to doing creative cutting-edge work without getting it wrong, mostly at the beginning. There isn’t. That’s the way the world works.
Some writers do a better job on this by talking about ways you can structure things so that a failure is more likely to be seen as a learning experience and where criticism and bad news can be received as gifts rather than attacks. But there’s precious little in those books about how you actually make it work and then keep it working over time.
Creativity Inc is different. The primary reason is Ed Catmull and his willingness to talk about the details of both his and Pixar’s journeys. Here’s what I consider the key quote from very early in the book.
“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; but we work hard to uncover those problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”
Early in the book, Catmull tells the story of a table in a meeting room at Pixar. The table, evidently, looks like most of the tables in most meeting rooms that I’ve been in. It was rectangular. Most of us have heard that tables with that shape aren’t exactly symbols of an egalitarian culture and that they stifle open discussion. But we keep meeting around those tables. So did Pixar.
“Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way – completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles.”
When Catmull and his crew become aware of the effect of the table, they change it. Good for them. Then they discover that there are other behaviors that may have been linked to the table originally but continue after the table is changed. For example, on the old table there were place cards indicating where people sat. Powerful people at the ends, junior people toward the middle. The new square table removed the power of shape but the place cards had become common practice, too. So, when Catmull came into the room for a meeting around the new table, he found place cards indicating where everyone should sit.
That is the book in a nutshell. Catmull covers a lot of ground and many topics, but the core book is about how he, John Lasseter, and other people at Pixar, uncovered problems and worked to solve them, nurtured creative energy, and dealt with the inevitable conflicts and surprises. Every organization that I’ve ever worked with or visited has had similar issues.
One problem putting together the review for this book is that it is simply riddled with wisdom. So, rather than give you the standard chapter summaries that I put in most reviews, I’m going to list each of the four sections and name the chapters that are in it, then share some quotes from that section. I’m sure that when you read the book, you will find your own insightful bits that are different from mine.
Part 1 is called Getting Started. The four chapters, Animated, Pixar Is Born, A Defining Goal, and Establishing Pixar’s Identity, tell the story of Ed Catmull and Pixar up until the success of “Toy Story.”
"I also didn’t yet know that my self-assigned mission was about much more than technology. To pull it off, we’d have to be creative not only technically but also in the ways that we worked together."
"What had drawn me to science, all those years ago, was the search for understanding. Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions. As we made more movies, I would learn that some of my beliefs about why and how Pixar had been successful were wrong. But one thing could not have been more plain: Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. And one that I wanted to do."
Part 2 is titled Protecting the New. That’s a theme that will run through the book from here on. The chapters are: Honesty and Candor, Fear and Failure, The Hungry Beast and The Ugly Baby, Change and Randomness, and The Hidden.
“Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’ This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp”
“So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.”
"One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts."
"If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead."
Part 3 is titled Building and Sustaining. There are only two chapters: Broadening Our View and The Unmade Future.
"This third section of the book is devoted to some of the specific methods we have employed at Pixar to prevent our disparate views from hindering our collaboration. In each case, we are trying to force ourselves—individually and as a company—to challenge our preconceptions."
"Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional. Postmortems are one route into that understanding.”
Part 4, titled Testing What We Know, also has just two chapters. They are A New Challenge and Notes Day.
"The future is not a destination—it is a direction."
One more thing. Steve Jobs played a critical role in Pixar’s success and Ed Catmull has included an afterword called The Steve Jobs We Knew. My friend, Bob Sutton, has said that Steve Jobs is something of a Rorschach test for people. You see what you think you see, and other people see the same thing and interpret it differently. My problem has always been that most of the views of Jobs freeze him in time and they don’t indicate any growth or maturity. No one as intelligent or introspective as Steve Jobs would have stayed the same for his entire life. What I loved about the afterword is that it not only gave a unique view of Jobs as both a business partner and a friend, but also talked about his growth during his life.
Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration is a great book about creativity and about how to lead an organization. More importantly it is the very best book I’ve ever read about unleashing the initiative and creativity of people in an organization.
This book is just like Ed: Brilliant, quotable, succinct, and humble. There are few people in this world as smart as Ed, fewer who seem to lack any ego, and a vanishingly small number who are both. In fact, Ed"s the only one I've met. Even though I was for years the low man on the totem pole, Ed never treated me differently than the highest status dignitaries who visited Pixar.
For years when I showed guests around Pixar or spoke of its culture I maintained that everything good about it, and the fact that art and technology are words that unite people rather than divide them is all due to Ed. With this book I get a big, fat I Told You So.
I recommend this book to anybody who is starting, running, managing, or working at a company; to anybody working in, studying, or interested in any creative pursuit; to fans of Pixar or Disney; and to anybody who likes a well-written book by a damn interesting guy. And you will not find a more intimate and clear-eyed assessment of Steve Jobs anywhere.
Ed"s wife told me once that he reads math books on vacation to relax. Nobody else could write a book on management that cites both Zen and stochastic self-similarity.
In chapters 1 through 4 Catmull tells his own journey, from a young child through the often turbulent creation of Pixar. After the creation of Pixar and the the success of Toy Story, he learned two central principles – “the story is king” and “trust the process.” The former idea was that focusing on and creating a good story would be paramount to the success of the project. The latter principle was reassurance that even if things got tough they could lean on the process that had been put in place and trust that following the it could get them over almost any hurdles.
The production of Toy Story 2, which was much more challenging, taught him that putting the right team in place is absolutely critical. The author refutes the opt-repeated idea that when building a team you should look for good ideas, not good people. As he points out, ideas come from people, so finding good people is key. Additionally, he states that it’s “…the focus on people – their work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely central to any creative venture.” He has since made it a priority to make sure that hired the right people and put them on projects that complement their skills, which will in turn lead to good ideas.
Chapters 5 through 9 are devoted to topics that challenge an organization:
- Candor. There subtle difference between honesty and candor. Honesty, he says, carries a moral connotation while candor does not. He believes that candor and the ability to feel open to share one’s thoughts and ideas and criticisms is essential to maintaining a creative working environment. It allows for the evaluation and re-evaluation of the project and the opportunity to make iterative improvements throughout the project life.
- Failure. While Pixar has been very fortunate to have had great successes they have also experienced their share of failures. Failure can be opportunity for growth and essential to learning. Iterative processes using trial and error, which frequently lead to failure, can help guide us to the best solution. Certainly, we should not seek out or become accepting of failure but it also should not be vilified to the point of creating a culture that avoids risk due to fear, stifling creativity and innovation.
- “Feeding the beast” and “the ugly baby.” Feeding the beast is what happens when a company enjoys some success, realizes significant growth, and then has to churn out more and more product to justify its own existence; you have to constantly feed the monster you’ve created. This often results in increased pressure to shorten development times which, in the author’s opinion, almost always leads to a corresponding loss in product quality. “The ugly baby” refers to an idea at conception that is very rough around the edges. They are incomplete and not fully formed. Ideas in this stage are vulnerable to being destroyed and need to be protected and nurtured to survive.
- Change. People fear of it and are resistance to it, often perceiving change as an admission that what thye’ve been doing isn’t really working. They don’t like the confusion, stress, or extra work that often accompanies change. However, change can be vital to growth and the creative process because it’s often necessary to evolve due to the changing conditions, business or otherwise, that surround you.
- Randomness. In business, and in life in general, we should not be fooled to think that we can control every aspect of every situation. However much we think that we are in control of our own destinies we need to recognize that the reality is that a fair amount of our success or failure, more than we often care to admit, is well beyond our control. He also uses this to underscore the idea that all the people in the company has an interest in its success so they should not be prevented or discouraged from making independent decisions because, in his words,”…we must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.”
- The Hidden. The hidden are the all the many things that we cannot see that influence our decisions; the unknown problems we have yet to encounter. Catmull states that one of his core management beliefs is “if you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.”
Later in book the author discusses methods that they have employed at Pixar to prevent these challenges within the organization from impeding collaboration and creativity.
1. Dailies or solving problems together. Collaborative daily meetings with project stakeholders to review and discuss the status of production in order to receive and provide feedback and constructive criticism.
2. Research Trips. Teams are encouraged to perform real-world research by immersing themselves into subjects and visiting locations in person to promote creativity and authenticity, preventing the finished product from feeling forced or derivative.
3. The Power of Limits. Priorities and limits need to be set within the context of the tasks at hand and the overall project in order to remain focused and make efficient use of time and resources. Limits can also be beneficial in that they often lead to creative solutions to overcome them.
4. Integrating Technology and Art. Using all the latest tools and technologies at your disposal to challenge, improve, and spur innovation in the creative process.
5. Short Experiments. Experimentation often leads to innovation, learning, and the development of skills that can be utilized on larger projects. It also affords a greater creative freedom and the ability to take bigger risks than many larger projects.
6. Learning to See. Setting aside preconceptions and biases so as not to jump to conclusions in order see something clearly for what it really is, or is not.
7. Postmortems. An exploratory meeting at the conclusion of a project to discuss what worked, what didn’t, how things could have been done different, and other lessons learned. These are essential components of continuous improvement.
8. Continuing to Learn. Learning promotes creativity and new ways of thinking. It opens us up to new ideas and possibilities which help reinvigorate the creative process.
Ultimately, our author makes the case that it is possible to create a sustainable creative culture. There will be challenges, setbacks, and failures but with the right people and processes in place they can almost always be overcome. There is a great assumption of risk that is married to any creative venture, and Pixar certainly is no exception. While the ideas he has presented create a framework of barriers to creativity and actions Pixar took prevent them, we must remain watchful and vigilant, and the solutions must evolve when needed. When it works it can be a source of great pride and accomplishment. The path isn’t always easy but, as the author states in closing, “…ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.”