Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

Part Pixar-history, part management how-to, Catmull lays out his management philosophy with examples of how he’s implemented it.

One of the things that Catmull really values is candor and building a culture where everyone feels free and safe to give honest feedback, and where speaking truth to power is welcome and encouraged. He shows this well in his book, because he illustrates his ideas with real-life examples, and he is very honest about his missteps and what happened when things didn’t work.

And I think that’s what I appreciated most about this book--Pixar isn’t a perfect company. Many beloved movies failed multiple times before hitting the theaters. I don’t want to say this is a “warts and all” because it’s not a tell-all airing out the dirty laundry, but, at the same time, it is very honest. Catmull shows where things have gone wrong and then parses it to try to examine why and what they changed to make things better.

One the other big underlying themes is letting go of ego. When people point out ways your project isn’t working, it’s not personal. (Of course as he readily admits, not taking it personally is really hard and much easier said than done, but it’s something to strive for). You should hire people smarter than you are, and then trust them to grow and you should listen to them. I think another very good point he makes is that when managers first learn about problems in meetings, or when told about something not-in-private, it’s not a sign of disrespect and that they need to GET OVER IT.

Personally, this is something I strive for in my own management. I told everyone who works at the library in my first few weeks here that if something isn’t working, I need to know. If I’m doing something that’s not helpful, they need to tell me. I have bigger things to worry about and deal with than being personally offended when you rightfully call me out on my bullshit. (Easier said than done, but I’ve been working on separating stuff out. Dealing with the issue, and then going home and acknowledging my sad feelings and wallowing a bit, and then getting on with it.)

He’s also a big proponent of creating a culture where it’s safe to take a risk and it’s safe to fail. (As Robert Reich said in his commencement speech when I graduated from college, if you’re not occasionally failing, you’re not reaching far enough or trying hard enough.)

I like that he gets into the specifics of culture clash issues when Disney bought Pixar and he became the head of Disney Animation. He then talks about what he did to change the Disney culture and that, like most things worth doing, it didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t always smooth.

But, one of his big things, and I think this is a good take-away for libraries is that everyone’s responsible for quality. And this ties back with his points on candor--everyone should feel empowered to look for quality issues and to go ahead and fix them or bring them to the attention of someone who can help fix them. Problems are not solutions. Often the person who notices the issue won’t have the solution, because often solutions aren’t that easy, but everyone is responsible for quality. One of the ways they foster this is to bring people from different areas and departments together. When movies are in progress, works-in-progress are routinely shown to, and commented on, by people who aren’t involved in the movie. When Pixar had grown so big some of the candor was being lost, they had a notes day where people from all across the company (including kitchen staff) got together to talk about issues and possible solutions.

I spent a number of years in a large library where departments were very separate--the children’s staff had a different work room than the adult services staff, which was different than circ, etc. Since switching systems, I’ve been at branches, which are smaller. At my last branch, only 1 person could physically be on the desk at a time, so they did reference and circ, and helped people of all ages. There’s much more fluidity between departments because that’s how we need to function. I love it. We all have the areas we specialize in, but we all have our fingers in other things, which makes us understand each other a lot better, and we have a bigger pool of people to bounce ideas off, because even if it’s not their department, they know the basics of your resources and constrictions. It doesn’t always work and it’s not always good, BUT one of things I really want to do as a manager is foster this type of cross team collaboration and minimize some of the us vs. them dynamic that I often see in libraries that can get really poisonous really quickly. And this is where Creativity, Inc. really spoke to me, both with ideas on how to nurture this, but in just reaffirming its great importance. (And, here I’m going to plug my friend Rachel’s new blog, Constructive Summer: Building the Unified Library Scene which is about this very thing)

So, overall, obviously, I loved this book. I found a lot of inspiration, but it was also just a fun read (let’s face it, when your examples are about making Toy Story, I will find it more engaging than an example about making a car.) Also, the Afterword: The Steve We Knew made me cry, which was embarrassing, because I was on the bus. Steve Jobs (owner of Pixar) came up frequently in the bulk of the book, but the afterword really looked at his role, but more importantly was Catmull talking about a friend who died. Catmull really looks at the biographical books and articles about Steve and talks about how they jived and did not jive with the person he knew. As someone who’s read Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different a countless number of times, it was really interesting to see some of the big points directly rebutted.

Book Provided by... my local library

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