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Creativity and The Future of Work

Code Halos
Code Halos Book

Creativity and The Future of Work

In this era of arbitrage and automation the one thing, so conventional wisdom has it, that will keep us safe when things go bump...

7 Minutes Read

In this era of arbitrage and automation the one thing, so conventional wisdom has it, that will keep us safe when things go bump in the night is our inherent human capacity to innovate. While all sorts of skills, traits, dispositions, capabilities, and attributes seem to have declining value – singing, lifting, flying, adding, coding, healing, talking, writing, driving; not much future in any of those – “creating” is core to the future of work, still seen as something that will put pain au chocolate (not pain anesthetized by chocolate ) on the table.   

So if that’s the case it probably makes sense to try and understand as much as we can about “creating”.

Now I can’t claim to have read all of the 22,274 books about “creativity” that Amazon carries, but I have read a few of them; Matthew Fox’s Creativity was pretty good, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist kept me company on a bio-break or two; back in the day I slogged my way through a couple of Bono’s dad’s biggest hits All of them had their moments but none of them really shivered me timbers, as the kids don’t like to say.

Enter (SCREEN RIGHT) Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. Those of you who, like me, have both young(ish) children and sit through credits will know (or at least have seen) Mr Catmull’s name at the end of The Incredibles, Toy Story I,II,III, Finding Nemo, and many other great films from Pixar. Though not as high profile as his flamboyant colleague John Lassater, Catmull (co-founder of Pixar and now President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation) is as integral to the incredible run of successes Pixar has had as anyone.

Given this track record it’s not surprising that a publisher would want to get The Thoughts of Mr Ed down on paper (or Gorilla Glass). [BTW; there’s a remake idea for you Pixar. You’re welcome!] What is surprising is that someone presumably as busy and over scheduled as Mr Catmull would come up with a book which is about the best I’ve ever read about business, period, let alone creativity. I think it’s safe to say that Catmull did not phone this in. And had a very good ghost to hand (take a bow Ms Wallace). [BTW; there’s another idea for you Pixar – a ghost that is a ghost. Again, you’re welcome!) 

Creativity, Inc. takes you inside the room(s) where Pixar magic is made. It gives you a fly on the wall POV on how ideas are generated, refined, stress tested and perfected, not in an abstract, theoretical way, but in a very low-key, easy to appreciate, human way. It explains how the “Brains Trust” works – i.e., the Star Chamber that every director has to take every new film to; where they workshop and critique and carve and polish and eventually come up with a core narrative that will successfully pry credit cards from wallets.

This process of “peer review” is central to Pixar and reading about it was so interesting to me because in a slightly less rarified and glamorous way I lived in a world of peer review in my years at Gartner, Inc. and still do at Cognizant (no Inc. here, just a Corp.)

Peer review is a very ill-defined art (certainly not a science). In my experience it is often a well-meaning but marginally valuable exercise. Though done for the right reasons it often falls prey to box-ticking, ego, CYA, back-scratching, time-boxing, politicking, mistiming (within the end to end process of production) derriere polishing, fatigue, posturing, glory hunting, turf protection, and sheer simple human dysfunction.

Presumably all of these things are present in the ether in Emeryville and Burbank but what Catmull does is explain in forensic detail how these negative elements are managed and compressed into as tiny ball of trash as possible.

A couple of examples; if you, as the director, don’t like a suggestion made at a Brains Trust meeting, you’re free to ignore it. In my experience, one felt contractually obliged to address (i.e. do) whatever point a peer reviewer made. Otherwise management perceived you as a “difficult, non-team player”, irrespective of whether the suggestion was platonically any good (which often they weren’t).  Directors can ignore ideas if they don’t feel they are useful. This doesn’t mean directors can blow ideas or people off. It simple recognizes the key importance of the director’s core vision of the film. Pixar isn’t a home for auteurs but understands that movies made by committee (the norm in much of Hollywood) often end up as Rotten Tomatoes.

Another example; peer review happens during the development process not at the end of it. Again, in my experience peer review was a final hurdle one had to get through at the 11th hour. Given that typically there was no time for any significant re-work beyond the peer review session people understandably did whatever it took (screaming, crying, acquiescing etc) to get their work through the process and signed off. Catmull gives a number of examples of where suggestions made at a Brains Trust meeting lead to a director doing a year-long re-write of a story, or of a complete re-work of thousands of hours of animation work.  This is not regarded by anyone as a “failure”. This is the process. This is what it takes. Executive management understands it and approves of it. 

A last example; the only people in the Brains Trust are people that have been through the Brains Trust, i.e. who have made a movie and know how difficult it is. To be personally honest I sometimes felt wound up by having to take suggestions from folks who had never written anything good in their life or who had never given a killer presentation. At Pixar, directors are not taking notes from accountants and wannabes and MBAs and other suits; they’re taking them from other creative people who are just as fragile, uncertain, egotistical, and crazy, as they are.

Catmull’s chapter headings – Honesty and Candor, Fear and Failure, The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby, Change and Randomness, The Hidden – give a sense of the dynamics in play in a creative process which he does so well to analyze and dissect and from which he provides recommendations that anyone in any role in any business that’s banking on creativity being central to their playbook should pay attention to.

Given that that just about includes every activity that is central to the future of work I’d suggest that on your way to pick up a copy of Code Halos you do yourself a favor and get something that’s a(nother!) fun read, a useful read, and most crucially, an important read for the future of your work, whatever it is.




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