Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

Most managers have holes in their knowledge.  Some people are promoted to management based on their skills.  They're the best at what they do in the company, so they are put in charge of other people.  The problem is that these managers have no training in how to handle people.  This is as true of assembly line managers as it is of college presidents.

Other people study management in school, but are ignorant of the processes they are managing.  They are in charge of people who know more than they do, though sometimes they won't admit it.  The world is full of MBAs who are incapable of producing any part of their company's product or service.

This is why there are so many books on business management.  The usual approach is to list things that should be done: Do this and you'll be successful.  Business books often differ in their recommendations, but the authors are convinced that their advice is sound.

Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar and now President of Pixar and Disney Animation, takes a different approach in Creativity, Inc.  As he started out in computer science writing software, he is analytical about solving problems.  However, rather than declare the right way to do things, Catmull instead writes about things to beware of, including things that are unknowable.

Don't measure people by their current skills, but by how much they can grow.  Don't be afraid to hire people smarter than you are.  Understand the reasons behind a disagreement rather than focusing on the disagreement itself.  Try to find the causes of fear in an organization and root them out.  Don't believe you can prevent all errors by planning.   Don't punish failure or no one will try anything new.  Don't measure people by their mistakes, but by their ability to fix their mistakes.  Don't let the organizational structure prevent communication between departments and people.  Don't let one department's agenda override other agendas.  Don't confuse the process with the goal.

Catmull writes about the above using examples from his own career and from Pixar.  On the surface, it reads as if Pixar has managed to overcome problems common to large organizations and has found ways to encourage the staff to focus on the success of the company.   But while Catmull is not shy about Pixar's failures and close calls, I think that there's a gap between the Pixar of this book and the Pixar of reality.

For instance, Catmull talks about having to keep product moving through the pipeline in order to use the staff efficiently, but the need to "feed the beast" in his words often results in going with the tried and true rather than taking chances on new ideas.  As an example, he mentions The Lion King 1 1/2.  "This kind of thinking yields predictable, unoriginal fare because it prevents the kind of organic ferment that fuels true inspiration."  However, Pixar is as invested in sequels these days as any other animation studio.

At times, Catmull is disingenuous.  He implies that Pixar's influence was responsible for the crew of The Princess and the Frog taking a research trip to Louisiana, when in fact Disney had been making research trips for earlier films like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  He gives credit to a Pixar developer for giving his crew time to pursue personal projects at work, while Google was widely reported to have been doing this for years.

Catmull praises Steve Jobs' design of Pixar's building, saying that it was constructed to force people from different departments to interact with each other.  Yet he also discusses a 2013 internal event called Notes Day, and one of the emails Catmull received after it was over said, "I met new people, got completely new points of view, and learned what other departments struggle with and succeed with."  Clearly, the geography of Pixar's building was not enough to fulfill Jobs' intention.

There is also a bit of a Pollyanna attitude.  While there are undoubtedly personal and legal reasons to avoid speaking about some staffing issues in specific terms, the pain and disruption of firings and layoffs is glossed over.  With one exception, the fate of the crew of Circle 7, the studio Disney created to do its own Pixar sequels, goes unmentioned.  There's nothing about the opening and closing of Pixar's Vancouver studio, either.

Catmull implies that directors are only replaced when stories are not progressing or when a director loses the confidence of the crew.  While no replaced directors are mentioned by name, it leaves a shadow over the heads of Jan Pinkava, Brenda Chapman and others who are criticized by implication, but without specifics and without the ability to refute the charges.

Catmull talks about personally delivering bonus cheques to each crew member on Tangled, talking about how important it was to acknowledge each person's contribution to the film.  And yet, after Frozen, now the most financially successful animated film in Disney history, those people laid off after completion have been denied bonus cheques though they contributed as much to the film as the people who were retained.  Disney will undoubtedly rehire some of these people in the future, and their commitment to future projects will be tempered by a knowing cynicism.  So much for team building.

There is much that is valuable in this book.  However, the contradictions in this book underline that no company is perfect and no matter how hard managers try to avoid or eliminate problems, there will always be some.  Catmull is to be praised for acknowledging this, but like everyone else, he's unaware of some of his own mistakes and blind spots.

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