The Saturday Read – Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace ‘Creativity, Inc.’

If you can’t find a business book that meets your needs, write one. Last year Pixar’s Ed Catmull decided to do just that with ‘Creativity, Inc.’ In the introduction, he tells the reader the book “is about the ongoing work of paying attention – of leading by being self-aware, as managers and as companies. It is an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

The Saturday Read this week is ‘Creativity, Inc: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration’.

What differentiates this ‘management bible’ from the others is how well it integrates Catmull’s personal story into the evolution of his management values. We learn how our first interactions with the workplace can influence how we expect all our work places to be structured.

The author changed his undergraduate major from art to physics. In graduate school at the University of Utah he was encouraged by a professor, Ivan Sutherland to study computer graphics “in essence, the making of digital pictures out of numbers, or data that can be manipulated by a machine”. 

It was in this collegial environment that he first experienced “This tension between the individual’s personal creative contribution and the leverage of the group is a dynamic that exists in all creative environments…we had the genius who seemed to do amazing work on his or her own; on the other end, we had the group that excelled precisely because of its multiplicity of views.”

His experiential memory of the environment needed to create the impossible informed his management approach as his career unfolded.

“I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.”

His guiding principles remain consistent. In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, ‘How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity’ he outlined his management philosophy.

“Empower your creatives. Create a peer culture. Free up communication. Craft a learning environment. Get more out of post-mortems.”

‘Creativity, Inc.’ expands on these principles with experiential lessons in failure and success. It’s about values.

“My belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they’re in.”

“We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these 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.”

Throughout the book we are learning about his leadership approach. It’s one that is not exclusive to the head of a major entertainment enterprise, but relevant to all managers from start ups to the Fortune 100.

“The way I see it, my job as manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative – whatever form that creativity takes – and that to encourage such development is a noble thing.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Reading Dangerously

Most of us have given up on our New Year’s resolution as the calendar turns to spring. But Mark Zuckerberg is well on his way to keep his promise to read a book every two weeks with the announcement of the sixth book in ‘A Year of Books’‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. This is not Oprah’s Book Club. Aspiring entrepreneurs who one day hope to achieve Mr. Zuckerberg’s success are quickly learning that the content of his choices is not for the faint of heart.

Professor Kuhn argues in his book “that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of normal science.” 

Disruption? Didn’t a couple of Harvard professors invent that idea a few years ago? This is why we read books written 53 years ago. It humbles us with the realization that we are not the inventors, but actors in a greater historical narrative.

The other books picks have been published more recently and are thoughtful meditations on our humanity, creativity and change. I’m sure many are attempting to decode a pattern in the book selection rather than accepting that Mr. Zuckerberg is seeking a better understanding, as a reader, of the challenges we face, and as a leader, understanding the broader context of the global community that is his customer.

The first five books selected:

‘Creativity’  Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

‘On Immunity’  Eula Bliss

‘Gang Leader for a Day’  Sudhir Venkatesh

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’  Steven Pinker

‘The End of Power’  Moises Naim

Why do we read books recommended by leaders and celebrities? Maybe to get a sense of how their reading habits led to their success. That’s where we start. But it’s where we go from there that personalizes a reading list to expand our understanding of the world beyond our community.

Follow the tangents, the annotations you make in the margins to discover both the old and new in your world and your profession.