Finally: A business memoir that owes more to Nassim Taleb than to Jack Welch

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Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios John Lasseter (L) and President and co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios Ed Catmull pose at the world premiere of Disney-Pixar's film "Wall-E" in Los Angeles, California June 21, 2008.

In the Uffizi gallery in Florence sit two Rembrandt self-portraits, one of the artist as a young man in his late 20s, the other, drawn when he was nearly sixty.  The contrast between the two images reveals both the passage of time and the evolution of wisdom.  We see before our eyes as a young, confident emerging artist become an accomplished, reflective master able to brilliantly capture the essential humanity and humility of his subject.  The mature painting seems to be rendered with less precise detail, yet achieves a far greater emotional impact.

I’ve been similar struck by the contrast between many of the young doctors I encountered during my training — interns and residents who seemed sure they knew everything, and exuded an almost desperate, preposterous confidence —  and the more experienced clinicians to whom almost everyone turned to for advice, introspective doctors who were far more conformable acknowledging the limitations of their knowledge, and the uncertainties of their endeavor.

In reading the recently-published Creativity Inc, by Pixar President Ed Catmull (co-authored with business writer Amy Wallace), it’s hard not to recognize the same wisdom and thoughtful self-reflection.  While ostensibly pitched as an instructional business book that might teach you how to run a creative company, it’s apparent that Creativity Inc might more appropriately be understood as a meditation by a serially successful executive about how incredibly difficult, contingent, and ephemeral creative accomplishment can be to achieve, and especially, to sustain.

Sandwiched between a section describing the company’s evolution from a hardware enterprise into a wildly successful film studio and a section capturing the key lessons learned (details reviewed elsewhere, eg here) lies the heart of the book, Catmull’s reflections on the challenge of building and sustaining creative enterprises.

Emergent Phenomena

First, Catmull emphasizes that most creative works, such as movies, are emergent phenomena, the result of a multiplicity of interacting forces into which we only have limited understanding.   Great projects aren’t born, but develop over time, and are inevitably associated with a vast number of false steps and dead-ends.

“Early on, all of our movies suck,” he bluntly writes, acknowledging that 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.”  Getting from sucking to not sucking is the essence of film development, and requires candid feedback and the willingness to iterate.

Even as he describes a mechanism – an internal advisory committee nicknamed the Braintrust, with no decision authority, but significant respect – that evolved at Pixar to help meet this need, it’s clear Catmull views the need to ensure emerging projects receive engaged, constructive feedback represents a vital ongoing challenge requiring constant vigilance and attention, rather than a problem a committee has solved.

Reframing Mistakes

Second, Catmull argues that “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil.  They aren’t evil at all.  They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”  In fact, he says, “If you aren’t experience failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”

In a fashion very similar to IDEO’s Kelley brothers (see here), Catmull celebrates the virtue of getting started rather than endlessly contemplating and strategizing.  In a “fearless culture,” Catmull says, people “begin to see the upside of decisiveness: the time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot.”

He adds,

 “It isn’t enough to pick a path – you must go down it.  By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, ‘explored the neighborhood.’  The key point here is that even if you’re in the wrong place, there is still time to head towards the right place.  And all the thinking you’ve done that led you down that alley was not wasted.”

Catmull hits this theme again and again, arguing for the pursuit of “iterative trial and error,” of “experimentation,” and urges project teams to be “wrong as fast as you can.”  The alternative, he says – in which you “carefully think everything through,” are “meticulous,” and “put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in hopes it will spare you failure down the line—well,” he says, “you’re deluding yourself.”

Not only does hyperdetailed planning increase your likelihood of being “unoriginal,” Catmull says, but “you cannot plan your way out of problems.”  It’s not that planning isn’t important, but rather, “there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

Catmull recognizes that experimentation “is scary to many,” but suggests we should “be far more terrified of the opposite approach.  Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance….To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.”

Pixar, he says, has tried “to make it less expensive to fail, thereby taking some of the onus off it” – eg permitting directors to spend years in the early phases of a movie (analogous to early phases of drug discovery), where “the costs of iteration and exploration are relatively low.”

He also observes that “the antidote to fear is trust,” and “trust is the best tool for driving out fear,” and getting people “to reframe the way they think about the process and the risks.”

Novelity vs Productivity

Catamull directly address the conflict that exist in every business between aspiring to produce something new and needing to produce something now, so that the sales and marketing (i.e. revenue-generating) “beast” can be fed.  (This tension has also been thoughtfully discussed by Steve Blank – see here).

The challenge for creative companies, says Catmull, is “protecting the new.”  He observes, “when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is most exciting about it.”

He adds, “the best ideas emerge when we’ve made it safe to work through problems.”

In Catmull’s view, the dynamic  tensions between the various stakeholders within an organization can be healthy, a “route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run.”  And it’s not that costs and efficiency aren’t important – or that the need to feed the beast isn’t a powerful and useful motivator.  “Making the process better, easier and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on,” Catmull writes, “but it is not the goal.  Making something great is the goal.”

The new “needs protection” in a way that “business-as-usual does not,” Catmull contends.  “The system is tilted to favor the incumbent.”

Catmull’s perspective is eloquently summarized by the speech given by the critic Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille, and written by director Brad Bird:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy.  We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.  But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.  The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.  The new needs friends.”

Embracing Randomness

While successful business leaders typically overstate their contribution and underestimate the role of chance, Catmull is painfully, poignantly aware of the role of chance, and appropriately humble in its presence.

Rather than either denying the role of randomness, or trying simplistically to tame it, Catmull preaches the virtues of acknowledging and accepting randomness, and essentially, trying to run with it since it’s going to impact you whether you like it or not.

“To my mind,” Catmull writes, “randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life.  Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised…Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what is is and let it work for us.  The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”  He adds later, “working with change is what creativity is about.”

Recognizing randomness  is especially importance in the context of success, Catmull contends: “Acknowledging our good fortune – and not telling ourselves that everything we did was some stroke of genius—lets us make more realistic assessments and decisions.  The existence of luck also reminds us that our activities are less repeatable.”

Que Sais-Je

Finally, in a fashion that seems equally indebted to Montaigne’s On Experienceand Taleb’s The Black Swan, Catmull contemplates the challenges of managing in a world where, inevitably, there will be so much that’s hidden, and that you can never see.

This is precisely the question that vexed Taleb as well; as I phrased it in my review, “How do you function in a world where accurate prediction is rarely possible, where history isn’t a reliable guide to the future and where the most important events cannot be anticipated?”

Much like Taleb, Catmull isn’t looking for certitude, and would profoundly (and appropriately) distrust it if he saw it.  But the alternative is finding a way to function and achieve balance – a very dynamic and ever-changing balance – in a world that’s constantly shifting.

For Catmull, encouraging employees to surface and solve problems, and to candidly share critique is both a daily challenge and an existential need, without which creative businesses are destined to fail.

Catmull deeply believes we must “accept that we can’t understand every facet of a complex environment,” and should instead focus “on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints.”

Strikingly, Catmull’s respect for what he calls The Hidden also leads to the realization that “hindsight is not 20-20” – rather, he argues,

“Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future.  While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited.  Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly – hindsight being 20-20 and all – we often aren’t open to knowing more.”

Inevitably (or perhaps, ironically) for this film studio executive, the key issue is narrative.  “We are meaning-making creatures,” Catmull writes, constantly filling in what we can’t see.  In other words, “the magician doesn’t create the illusion – we do.”  The challenge for managers and executives is recognizing just how susceptible they are to these narratives, and to strive, constantly, to be mindful of these illusions and search for ways to look beyond them.

Not only does Catamull recognize the futility of trying to domesticate uncertainty, he also astutely perceives its value.  “The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty,” he suggests.   “The Hidden – and our acknowledgement of it – is an absolutely essential part of rooting out what impedes our progress: clinging to what works, fearing change, and deluding ourselves about our roles in our own success.”

Humility

While humility may not be a quality we associated with either great artists or corporate titans, it emerges as one of the most important themes of Catmull’s book.  It’s a profound, deep humility, one resulting from a thoughtful, introspective consideration of the uncertainties and contingencies of life and business.

Notably, Catmull’s humility doesn’t diminish in any way his determination to change the world, and his belief creative companies can achieve this audacious goal.  Rather, I suspect it’s precisely his rare ability to recognize his limitations that enables him – and Disney-Pixar — to consistently transcend them.

Let’s hope Catmull’s story inspires entrepreneurs and executives in healthcare as well; it’s difficult to conceive of a space more in need of creative solutions, and of leaders able to recognize the new, and protect and cultivate its perilous development .

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