Review: Creativity, Inc.

Pixar has the reputation of being a pretty amazing company. Even back in 2002-2003 – when there were “only” a handful of blockbusters to the Pixar name – they were already a legendary firm on the Berkeley campus, one that my undergrad graphics group admired from an academic distance. Their blend of technology and storytelling is unmatched.

Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is a book about the beginnings and early days of Pixar, but without having read any book reviews, I was surprised by how much it focused on business and people management. Whereas some other books about top executives like Steve Jobs and Onward (by Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks) emphasize a CEO’s leadership and decisiveness and business acumen, Creativity, Inc. tackles some of the less visible aspects of the CEO job, namely: hiring, team building, and establishing company culture.

Peter Thiel calls them “secrets,” but books on management will invariably reveal both plain and hidden truths on the human psyche. The good ones will detail techniques to detect and influence that behavior for the better. With that goal, Ed Catmull does an excellent job laying out the various tactics that he employed during Pixar’s existence, along with his general philosophies on how to elevate people to do their best work.

One caveat is that some of the suggestions and techniques Catmull employ work well in Pixar’s hierarchy, that of a movie studio with the director at the helm of a creative team. The vast majority of readers won’t be in the same shoes, and so some of these lessons won’t be applicable. Even as we use the label “creative class” to collectively describe knowledge work, most jobs won’t have the same level of creative freedom afforded to movie storytelling.

There are always multiple versions of a story, but the less flattering aspects are usually hidden unknowns – you suspect that things aren’t as rosy (or as horrid) as described, but wouldn’t know without additional corroboration. Sadly, my experience with the book was somewhat tainted by the wage-fixing scandal that centralized around Pixar and Catmull in particular. Here is the president detailing how he has created an awesome team that produces amazing work, whose benevolence is undercut by ensuring that his employees remained paid uncompetitive salaries. I wouldn’t say he is hypocritical1, nor is this book an appropriate place to address this issue, but it was a distracting sidenote that kept me from fully appreciating the book.

  1. I can imagine a coherent worldview that somewhat decouples the reward of doing the work itself vs. that of monetary rewards, even if I disagree with the characterization.

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