Creativity, Inc. 

By: Ed Catmull



Pixar is a juggernaut.

For the past twenty years it has literally dominated the animated film industry, producing fourteen consecutive #1 box office hits when most studios would be elated with just one.

Collectively they have won 30 Academy Awards, and generated over $8 billion in ticket sales.

Today, when you go to watch a Pixar movie, you know that you'll be seeing something truly special.

What's their secret? Pixar's co-founder Ed Catmull tells us that it's the unique environment that he and his team has built. That creating an innovative product (over and over again) is a function of what the subtitle of the books says - overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.

So without further adieu, here are the 6 core principles that Pixar embraced to go from a little known software startup on the brink of failure, to the world-beating powerhouse we know today.

Principle #1: Quality is the best business plan.

In business, when we hear the word quality a lot of things come to mind. For some people it means a product that is built to last. For some people it brings to mind the total quality management principles made famous by Toyota.

But at Pixar, quality is not a consequence of following a prescribed set of behaviours. It's a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do. It's the difference between saying that you'll never settle for anything but the best, and living and breathing it.

Pixar signed a historic deal with Disney in 1991 (after having to let almost half of their staff go) to produce three computer-animated feature films. The first of which was called Toy Story.

Toy Story was not only a technical marvel - it was the first ever feature-length computer animated film - it was also a box office smash, going on to gross over $350 million worldwide.

After that success, Disney asked for Toy Story 2 to be a direct-to-video release. This seemed to be a reasonable request. For all of their success, Disney had only released one sequel in theatres, and it had been a total flop. If Disney was making tons of money producing lower quality sequels, so could Pixar.

But that would't fly with the staff at Pixar, who insisted that their work was being devalued. From then on, they decided that only A-level theatrical releases should bear the Pixar name.

To their surprise, Disney allowed them to proceed with the plan and release the movie in theatres. Fast forward a year and they held a viewing for Disney executives. The Pixar team felt that the movie was flat and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original movie a creative and commercial success.

The Disney executives disagreed, arguing that the movie was "good enough", and that it was "only a sequel."

This is where Pixar's quality mindset shone through for the second time. While they respected the Disney executives opinion, and regardless of the amount of work they needed to put in, they were going to start from scratch on the film even though they only had 9 months to the release date.

This quality mindset is what produced another commercial and critical success. It eventually grossed almost $500 million, and got a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's widely considered to be one of the few sequel films ever to outshine the original.

Without this mindset, the story of Pixar might have had an alternate ending.

Principle #2: Failure isn’t a necessary evil.

While failure in business circles isn't the evil it once was, we still have a built in desire to avoid it. Especially when it comes to creative pursuits.

We are taught from a young age that there are right and wrong answers, where we reward the right answers and punish the wrong ones. Not only that, but we are taught that there is a right way and a wrong way to arrive at those answers.

Rarely is credit given to trodding an unexplored path that results in a dead end.

But in business, failure is inevitable, and we must learn how to deal with it properly if we want to succeed. This is something that Catmull and the team at Pixar understands deeply.

For one thing, they believe that making mistakes should never strike fear into employee's hearts. If there's a surefire way to kill creativity, fear of failure is it.

Secondly, eliminating mistakes is a fools errand. Unless we are dealing with mistakes that are life and death situations, the cost of preventing errors is usually greater than the cost of fixing them.

As Catmull insightfully points out, the over planners just take longer to be wrong. On top of that, they are more committed to the path they chose, and they are more crushed by their failure when things don't go as planned.

Consider instead how a scientist approaches their work. They have a question, construct hypotheses, test them, analyze them, and then draw conclusions to construct a new hypotheses. All the while inching towards greater understanding and getting closer to their goal.

In Catmull's view - management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

This is the approach the team at Pixar took in the film Monsters, Inc. It began as the story of a 30-year-old, unemployed accountant who sees monsters that nobody else can see, and ended up as a beautiful tale of a sweet monster named Sulley and his unlikely friendship with a little girl named Boo.

If they had viewed their initial paths as failures, they never would have created another commercial and critical success - this one grossed over $577 million.

Principle #3: People are more important than ideas.

For this principle we need to go back to Toy Story 2. The part of story we skipped over was why Pixar felt they needed to remake the entire film from scratch.

They had signed a 3 movie deal with Disney, and because they had originally decided to make Toy Story 2 as a direct-to-video, they put their more talented animators (the ones that had created Toy Story) an a different film called A Bug's Life.

They incorrectly assumed that if the more talented animators gave the Toy Story 2 team the big ideas and let them execute them, everything would be fine.

However, they learned that if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. Conversely, if you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.

Principle #4: Prepare for the unknown.

Just like people will fail, it's a certainty that unforeseen, random events will happen. It's how you deal with those events that matter.

For instance, during the making of Toy Story 2, an employee used a computer command that accidentally wiped out the drives where the entire movie was stored. 90% of the movie was erased in a matter of seconds.


In most companies, that person would have been fired immediately, a new work instruction would have been added to an already overflowing procedure manual, and everybody warned never again to stroke a key that wasn't pre-approved by the company executives.

I'm exaggerating to make a point, but that's probably closer to the truth than most people would admit.

However, at Pixar, a different culture had been cultivated. One where people at all levels feel like they "own" the problems and can take steps to fix them without asking for permission.

So when 90% of a feature film disappeared in a matter of seconds, they didn't point the finger at anybody. Not because it wasn't important - this was a potentially disastrous situation.

Luckily, the technical director had recently had a baby and was working from home on a regular basis. She had a problem to solve - she couldn't do her work without an updated copy of the movie.

Instead of asking for permission, she went ahead and killed two birds with one stone - she made a copy that she could use at home on a weekly basis, and at the same time created a backup when nobody else at the company had thought to make one.

If she didn't feel empowered to do this, Pixar would have missed the deadline for the film, which would have been disastrous for what at the time was a small, public company.

The ultimate point of this is easy to miss. It's impossible to hire the best and most creative people, throw them into an organization that has a rule for every single action, and expect them to perform at their best.

If you want an innovative and creative organization, you need the right culture. One where people feel free to come up with creative solutions for not just the biggest problems, but any problem.

Principle #5: Do not confuse the process with the goal.

Up to this point we've been focussed on finding the right people and giving them the latitude to do their best work.

Of course, in any business there still needs to be a focus on making a quality product easier, better, faster and cheaper. There are bills to pay, after all.

That's why, when coming out of the original Toy Story, one of the phrases they liked to repeat was "Trust the Process." It was meant to calm the fears of their team when they were deep in their creative journey and there didn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

But they quickly found out that the things that the executives continuously communicate become the end goal of their teams. If the boss says to trust the process, then challenging the process would be a mistake at best, and career suicide at worst.

As Catmull points out, following the process is NOT the goal. The goal is to make something great.

Luckily they continuously hired people who felt compelled to challenge the process when they felt it would help them improve the end product.

For instance, in an attempt to create a more cost-efficient production, Pixar tried to finalize the script for one of their movies before the director and crew started making the film. Sounds like a good idea in theory.

Except for the fact that they made more adjustments to the film than any other Pixar film ever made, negating any of the benefits from having the script ready to go.

The result was one of the highest grossing and most critically-acclaimed animated films of all-time - Finding Nemo. Who knows what would have happened if they had simply followed the script (pardon the pun.)

Principle #6: Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

Communication is critical to the success of any organization. Just like everything else that Pixar does, they handle communication differently than most companies.

First, they believe that communication structures should never mirror organizational structures. Having a chain of command is essential, but making sure that everything happens in the "right" order and through the "proper" channels is not efficient.

Secondly, they believe that honesty and candor is critical to their success.

One of the processes that Pixar DOES follow is to have every one of their films present their progress to something they call their Braintrust - a group of talented people from the company who could be counted on to give their honest opinions in a constructive manner.

This is crucial to their creative output, Catmull says, because the first versions of their films "suck." Not because their people don't do great work, but because anybody who takes on a complicated creative project gets lost in the details at some point. They can't see the forest for the trees.

A second defining feature of this process (besides it being a group of trusted peers) is that the Braintrust has no authority. The director doesn't HAVE to follow any of the specific suggestions.

That way, there is trust on both sides. Because it is candid feedback and not instructions, there is no animosity or hard feelings in the process - only a group of people committed to seeing a piece of work reach its full potential.

The Braintrust includes four simple pieces of feedback on each movie - what is wrong, what is missing, what isn't clear, and what doesn't make sense.

Then, the director gets back to work with their crew armed with candid but sincere feedback, allowing them to make the course corrections necessary to release a movie worthy of the Pixar name.


If you take one thing away from this incredible book, take this: creativity is all about creating the right environment for your best people to do their best work, and then getting out of the way.

It worked for Ed Catmull and the team at Pixar, and it just might work for you.