Lessons in Creativity – From Pixar

I’ve always been a fan of Pixar Movies so I was curious about Creativity Inc, by Ed Catmull. As I read through the book I realized that it’s about much more than the Story of Pixar and how Ed thinks about Creativity. It’s an interesting book with some really great insights on Ed’s leadership style. I’ll go a little deeper on specific insights in future posts – this time out, I’d like to provide a brief recap of my key learnings.

“This book is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative – whatever for that creativity takes”.

Ed also talks about the blockers which hinder creativity in organizations – one blocker that I’ve seen and experienced firsthand, is Fear of Failure.

“For most of us, failure comes with baggage. From an early age the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn’t study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or worse, aren’t smart enough to begin with. Failure is something to be ashamed of. I see people resist and reject failure and try mightily to avoid it, because mistakes feel embarrassing. There is a visceral reaction to failure”. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They’re an inevitable consequence of doing something new. How then does one make failure into something people can face without fear?

If we as leaders can talk about mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them”.

I have found that Fear of Failure is probably one of the most significant blockers to creativity, in any organization. I think there will always be an element of fear in the workplace, even in an environment where organisations strive to build trust. Individual leaders feel the pressure to succeed and weight of the imposter syndrome. Our successes often lead to even more pressure and fear of failure, as we strive to maintain our performance.

“There are two parts to any failure. There’s the event itself, with all is attendant disappointment, confusion and shame and then there’s our reaction to it”. We must remember that failure gives us a chance to grow and we ignore those chances at our peril.

I often talk to friends and colleagues about the Universe we control and that which we don’t. We can’t readily control every incident which results in failure. Do we become introspective or bury our heads in the sand? Do we make it safe for ourselves and others to acknowledge and learn from problems, or do we shut down discussion by looking for people to blame?

Ed talks about how Pixar’s leaders responded to challenges with failed movie projects by assembling teams to analyze issues and come up with solutions. That’s hardly unique, however what made this exercise special was the attitude with which the meetings were carried out. No one was running from his or her role in the failures. They neither blamed the existing problems on others nor asked for someone else to solve them.

It’s that inclusive, collaborative culture and the joint accountability which leaders demonstrate, that attitude, that culture of joint accountability and a genuine interest in solving problems vs. playing the blame game – makes all the difference.

In Creativity Inc, Ed describes how the Pixar leaders openly discussed failure and all its ripple effects in the belief that seeking to better understand the reasons for failures removes barriers to full creative engagement. This exercise serves to uncouple fear from failure – and create an environment where the prospect of making mistakes doesn’t terrify individuals. And that makes all the difference in the World.

“Rather than try to prevent all errors, we should assume, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let mistakes happen and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason – our job (as Leaders), is to find the reason and remedy it. Managements job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover”.

As Leaders, you may not wholeheartedly agree with how Ed characterizes the role of Leaders in addressing Fear of Failure within an organization. It’s certainly thought provoking stuff…. and the book is well worth a read..

Here’s a snapshot of some of the Pixar Movies which Ed talks about in Creativity Inc…

Some Pixar Movies


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