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Executive Leadership: Unseen Pitfalls Stand In The Way of True Inspiration
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Executive Leadership: Unseen Pitfalls Stand In The Way of True Inspiration - Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Unseen Pitfalls Stand In The Way of True Inspiration

Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Unseen Pitfalls Stand In The Way of True Inspiration

Even the casual moviegoer is famliliar with the basic plot of the Pixar story: a small company of creative computer geniuses, led by Steve Jobs, produced the first full-length, completely computer-animated film. That film, Toy Story, broke records at the box office and changed the creation, perception, and reception of animated cinema forever. Following Toy Story’s success with a string of thirteen more number-one movies, multiple Academy Awards, an hugely successful initial public offering, and a merger with Disney Animation, Pixar married technology with art and entertainment and created a sterling brand. The Pixar name means great story, cutting-edge animation, envelope-stretching creativity, and box office gold.

Ed Catmull is one of PIxar’s founders. He is the president of Pixar and of Disney Animation, and has been one of the driving forces behind Pixar since the days before Steve Jobs came aboard, when the little company was a software group sprung loose from a technical division at LucasFilm, and he is the author of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House, 2014). Catmull relays the story of how, on the eve of Pixar’s IPO and in the wake of Toy Story’s success, when a lifetime of dedication to the computer-animated movie dream had finally come true and his company was about to emerge as a cornerstone of the entertainment landscape, he felt strangely empty. He’d spent his whole life in dogged pursuit of one thing, and now that it had been accomplished and successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectation, he didn’t know what could replace that vision.

Catmull explains that he considered PIxar a special place, where creativity and inspiration flourished, but a career spent in Silicon Valley had shown him a long parade of brilliantly creative companies that had found huge success and then vanished or floundered. What had caused the downfall of these once-great cutting-edge companies, and how could he prevent Pixar from following the same path? With this as his new focus, he looked for patterns in those other companies, moved to head similar problems off at PIxar, and wrote Creativity, Inc. as a way to share what he learned.

This is not merely a telling of a Pixar story, then, but one successful executive’s observations of how radically different companies can stay on the bleeding edge, how the culture of a company can be nurtured even as it goes from forty-five employees to twelve hundred. “Unleashing creativity,” Catmull writes, “requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” Working mostly on the themes of mutual candor, trusting your people, accepting that creativity means stepping into unknown territory, and controlling the terror that can well up when traversing such unknown territory, the author underscores his points with fascinating examples of these pitfalls at work during the production of such cinematic mile-markers as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.

When discussing times when Pixar has veered away from the culture he works so hard to maintain, Catmull is quick to point the finger at himself, and as solutions are found by members of his leadership team, he is quicker to credit them for righting the path, eager to remind the reader that it is a constant process of evaluation, feedback, and creative problem-solving that keeps a company like Pixar on the bleeding edge.

One especially intriguing chapter deals with what he calls “The Hidden,” that characteristic of creativity that dictates an unknown path. When a creative company is successful, it’s easy for it to try to protect that success, using its own pioneering methods to keep things the way they are, sticking to what worked last time. Catmull points at this as a natural response to creative success, but one that flies in the face of the creative spirit that brought about the initial success. A company like Pixar had to break all kinds of rules and to create new ways of thinking in order to make Toy Story a reality; to duplicate those rules and ways of thinking might work for a little while, but would eventually lead to a product that was only an imitation of the company’s own past glory, without the newness that made the original product such a world-changer. In order to stay fresh and relevant, a company has to step back into that terrifying space where nobody knows whether or not it’s all going to work out okay, that spirit that birthed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and the rest of Pixar’s impressive portfolio. Catmull describes several strategies Pixar uses to keep things alive and fresh for its creative staff.

Catmull spends a lot of time dealing with the issue of candor, and how critical it is in creating excellent work. When a company, even one with a culture of expecting honest feedback from everyone on a team such as Pixar’s, gains enormous success, there is a temptation to pull punches, he writes. Many employees came aboard at Pixar after it was already an institution in the entertainment and tech worlds, and too impressed by the company’s reputation, didn’t think they had anything meaningful to say even when they felt things were not quite right. This is a problem that can only be solved from the highest levels, says Catmull, and if a company does not find a way to address the fear of being honest, its product and its culture will suffer.

When Disney acquired Pixar and put Pixar’s leadership in charge of Disney Animation, Catmull and Pixar CEO John Lasseter were committed to keeping the two studios completely separate, for multiple ideological and practical reasons. One result of this commitment to separation was that Catmull had a new, existing organization with which to try his ideas. He shares how many of his organizational ideas were implemented at Disney and how, with the improved culture there, Disney was able to return to its place as the leader in animation.

One thing that makes Catmull’s suggestions inspiring is that he presents them across the illustration of a company that started out very small, hanging on for its dear life and always on the brink of failure, but grew into a very large, two-studio enterprise. The implication is that wherever your company is on its path, there are things you can do to encourage truly creative thinking while never sacrificing excellence, as long as the leadership is fully on board and ready to stand behind its assertions of seeking this kind of success. There is a wonderful absence of finger-pointing in recounting some of Pixar’s enormous mistakes; rather than find someone to blame, Pixar spends its energies on effective, creative problem-solving, and this comes only with leadership that trusts its processes. It’s difficult to argue with the results.

 

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Executive Leadership: Unseen Pitfalls Stand In The Way of True Inspiration - Executive Leadership Articles

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