The POV Dispatch is our Autodesk internal newsletter, published monthly, where we discuss the big ideas that are important to us and our customers. It is published by our Corporate Strategy & Engagement (CS&E) team of which Autodesk Labs is a part. Jon Pittman is the VP of Corporate Strategy and leader of CS&E, so it should come as no surprise that Jon routinely makes submissions to issues of the POV Dispatch. Jon is also a Lecturer at the Haas School of Business of the University of California at Berkeley. Jon contributed this book review to a recent issue, and it was popular among employees.
Ed Catmull is the CEO and founder of Pixar. Creativity, Inc. is a combination of history of Pixar and Ed's lessons for running a creative company. He describes many aspects of the Pixar creative process and culture, including a culture that embraces failure as a learning mode, constructive criticism, and starting with an idea and refining it relentlessly until it works.
One thing I liked about the book is that it also covers the history of Pixar — which is a history of entertainment computer graphics — with some parallels to my career and Autodesk. There are a few people I know in the book and many that I know by reputation. Pixar was sold to Disney, and Catmull became the head of Disney Animation. The book covers the merger of Pixar and Disney Animation and describes what Catmull and John Lassiter, Pixar's lead animator, did to make that merger work. Their success there shows the value of culture and leadership — as well as a pretty humble style.
Catmull ends the book with a nice coda tribute to Steve Jobs. While Jobs is most known for Apple, he also owned and was Chairman of Pixar (and sold it to Disney). While Ed ran Pixar, he spoke with Jobs weekly and he said Jobs really nurtured Pixar — although it was sometimes through tough love. Ed says that many remember the bad aspects of Jobs' personality but there were many good aspects, and he was a great steward for Pixar. Catmull dedicated the book to Steve Jobs — which is a testament to how he felt about Jobs and his contribution to Pixar.
Lessons for companies like Autodesk
Creativity, Inc. won't provide a magic recipe for creativity and innovation but will provide insight into how Pixar does it. Catmull has a nice appendix which distills his lessons for managing a creative culture. Some of those lessons can be applied to Autodesk:
It is all about the people.
Pixar attracts a strong and eclectic group of people. Catmull says if you give a great idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. Conversely, if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or come up with something better. He discusses hiring people for potential rather than past accomplishment. One of the secrets of Pixar is what Catmull calls the "brain trust" — a bunch of senior directors who review and critique each film throughout its development (see below).
Foster a culture of constructive criticism.
Pixar, like many design organizations, thrives on a culture of constructive criticism. The brain trust reviews each film and give the director lots of feedback. The director must determine what to do with that feedback. Catmull spends a lot of time describing how to make sure people are free and open to expressing their ideas. He is very clear about the value of candor and getting multiple viewpoints. He says that we should not try to get everything to run smoothly but rather seek out the creative tensions around ideas and projects.
Every movie is ugly when it starts — but is made beautiful by a process of refining and shaping.
This is perhaps the most profound and relevant insight in the book. He said that people think that the wonderful Pixar movies sprung fully-formed from the minds of the directors and production teams, but that is untrue. Every movie started out rough and ugly and was made wonderful through a process of refinement and constructive criticism. It is the job of the organization to take ideas and make them work. In some ways, refinement is done through successive failure.
Strive for interdependence.
Catmull talks about the value of different viewpoints and integrating them into a single set of goals. He says that "the healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose."
Focus on outcomes not process.
Here is a quote: "Don't confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should constantly work on — but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal." For those astute students of strategy, this is synonymous with my view that operational effectiveness is not a strategy.
The key thing that stands out in Ed Catmull's book is that success is all about people and their interaction. He seems to have established a culture of excellence, creative conflict, and interdependence. These are hard things to do — and require constant leadership and management attention. Clearly, they have been successful at Pixar and are applicable to Autodesk. One of the best quotes in the appendix defines what leadership really is "Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves." There are a lot of books that purport to provide insight on how to be creative and innovative. Most fail to provide such insight. Creativity, Inc. is different. Catmull's perspective leading Pixar and later Disney Animation gives him real credibility. The lessons that Catmull projects are mostly common sense but may be hard to implement in practice. The evidence from Pixar is that if you can implement them, Catmull's lessons work.
Striving for greatness is alive in the lab.