Lessons from Pixar and Disney: Creativity is a Team Sport [book review]

Sometimes, every once in awhile, an amazing book drops off the shelf, in front of your eyes and into your hands and resonates with you at the core of your being. ‘Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration’ by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, recently had that effect on me!

So why is this story having such a profound impact?

It was an incredibly validating read, for me, as an inherently creative person, who after a diverse range of major career changes, became a start-up entrepreneur. In doing so, I took on a very complicated creative and inventive process and subsequently got lost in it. As I am always keen to make sense of things, Ed Catmull provided me with a simple way of understanding what had happened to me. He also provided me with a set of strategies I could use personally as well as to teach others what to do when they get confused and lost in the complicated creative processes necessary for innovation.

Creativity is an emergent process

“People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things— in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.”

This makes creativity initially a very deeply personal process that emerges something new, that has not previously existed. As there are no parameters, restrictions or boundaries, it occurs in a free form state of flow that is part of an inner discovery process and an inner knowing of ‘what is’ and ‘what could be.’

Creativity is confusing

“But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/ director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming”.

This means that creativity requires a tacit understanding of the role and nature convergence and divergence as a disassembling and reassembling process. one in which the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle tend to fly in, fly around and fly out of space simultaneously.

Creativity is a team sport

Creativity and innovation are most successful when played as team sports, what really matters is the level of trust that exists between the people on the team, as well as their willingness and ability to be courageous, confident, compassionate, connected and curious when operating in the tea space.

Creativity requires patience and candor

As there are no apparent boundaries, road maps, junctions and assembly points in the creative process, creativity also requires some kind of acknowledgement, acceptance, comfort and detachment from the confusion and overwhelm.

Creativity requires a special type of work environment

Whilst in a state of overwhelm and confusion and where people are passionate about a creative idea, they won’t actually see the problems that are occurring around or within it.

So coming to clarity with creativity is an iterative process and takes patience, collaboration and candor. In both the start-up and innovative organizational context, it requires a work environment where everyone has a vested interest in one anothers success.

Key Steps in creating a creative work environment

People on the team need to be able to operate from a growth, outward and collaborative mindsets to;

  1. “See” individually, collectively and systemically by zooming up, across and down and acknowledge and be okay with “what is really going on.”
  2. Candidly conduct constructive feedback processes and mechanisms to iterate ideas to their highest possible creative level.

Ed Catmull describes how this operate in Pixar; “we offer them the counsel of the Braintrust” and explains how the Braintrust different from any other feedback mechanisms because it is comprised of people who engage in constructive criticism by;

-      Understanding the generative nature of the problem and are empathic because they have been through a similar situation themselves.

-      Seeking to identify the true causes of problems and operate through suggesting and not mandating solutions, which do not have to be followed.

-       Raising the game, by not being prescriptive, but by offering candid and deep analysis of the problem or situation.

-      Excavating the truth, and generating creative ideas, through energetic and rigorous questioning and debate.

-      Adding value and contribution to the creative idea, and not competing with it.

“Braintrust is valuable because it broadens your perspective, allowing you to peer— at least briefly— through others’ eyes”.

Which is why, creativity and innovation are most successful when played as true trusted and candid team sport!

Suggestions on developing “good notes” that enhance creativity the Pixar way!

-      Say what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense.

-      Offer constructive feedback at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem.

-      Don’t make demands; don’t even include a proposed fix. But if a proposed fix is offered, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer.

-      Most of all, a good note is specific.

As Ed Catmull says, the successful feedback system is built on empathy, collaboration, and candor and in pursuit of a common goal; which is supporting and helping each other to be the best and to make the best product or service possible to their market.

Telling the truth is difficult, but inside a creative company, it is the only way to ensure excellence.

image credit: Random House

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How the Lean Start-up Accelerates Innovation Janet Sernack gained her consulting, education, facilitation, training and executive coaching skills, from 30 years experience in manufacturing, retailing and learning and development businesses to Australia’s and Israel’s’ top 100 companies. She resides in Israel where she founded a start-up, ImagineNation™ that teaches innovative leadership and start-up entrepreneurship via The Start-Up Game™.

About Janet Sernack

Janet Sernack is the founder of a start-up, ImagineNation™ a generative and provocative innovation education company that provides innovation e-learning programs including The Coach for Innovators Certified Program™ experiential learning events including The Start-Up Game™ and culture transformation projects that enable people and corporations to develop a strategic and systemic innovation culture and internal capability. On the rare occasions she is playing and learning by doing and failing in the innovation space, she is a meditation and yoga devotee, seaside bunny, avid reader, global adventurer and primary human carer to three four legged joyful beings.
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