Last month, the Tri-Cities were buzzing with the best and brightest in Canadian tech as thousands converged at the new Lot42 in Kitchener for the True North conference, hosted by Communitech.
As part of the Lazaridis Institute’s sponsorship and Wilfrid Laurier University’s support of the event, keynote speaker Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, visited the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics for a private speaking engagement on May 29.
Laurier students and alumni were among the nearly 150 guests in attendance. They were joined by representatives of the university, government and companies such as Axonify, Dozr, Vidyard and Oculys. Representatives from Global Affairs Canada, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Accelerator Centre and MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund were also in attendance. Catmull shared candid stories in a fireside chat with Lazaridis Institute Managing Director, Kim Morouney, as they discussed the importance of managing creative projects in a way that supports the creative process.
“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, then this means that you do modify your reality, you do change the future. Please use your opportunity to make the world a better place. This is your chance.”
Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy introduced Catmull the following morning at True North and described his book, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, as “a detailed manual for managing creative endeavours.”
From both his discussions, here are five takeaways from Catmull about managing creative endeavours and teams.
Creativity is the process through which we solve problems; whether they be about business, relationships, storytelling, science or otherwise.
“I’ve always felt that technology is a very creative activity,” said Catmull. “With Toy Story, initially we were largely technology people because of the problems we were trying to solve, but the creative team came in later and we knew we wouldn’t succeed without an engaging story. Most people think it’s incongruent to mix art and business and science. That’s a misconception – it should be normal.
“Everyone has the potential to be creative. It’s our choices that enable the block. Remove the blocks to candor. Make it ok to make mistakes. As the outside world continues to change, our creativity impacts how we respond.
With Toy Story, it wasn’t about the tech, it was about the story – and using technology to energize that story.
“We do not make movies for children. We forget that children live in an adult world and are wired to figure it out. It’s the inner child in all of us that we want to appeal to.”
What if, instead, we ask about the systemic or cultural forces that block creativity? Cultural beliefs or power structures can stifle creativity when the opinions of others are treated as, or felt to be, of lesser importance. This can be seen when groups are not heard or listened to, which is obvious. But it can also be seen when people will not come forward because they feel they can’t complain, or make improvements or suggestions. The latter requires reflection and openness to recognize.
“When [Pixar] arrived [at Disney], the studio was considered to be a failure for not producing creative films,” said Catmull. “They are now considered largely successful. It’s mostly the same people. The talent was there – we had to remove the barriers to allow the creativity to flow.
“[The producers] believed their job was to make a film without any mistakes. It was deeply embedded in their culture that the job was not to present errors, but rather to respond when things go wrong. We had to change that thinking.”
“People have reasons why they hold back,” said Catmull “You have to work really hard and be aware of the problem to create space for people to engage without feeling like they will be judged.”
In his book, Catmull outlines a practice referred to as Braintrust, in which the senior leadership team of a movie in development would come together to identify and solve problems that may exist within the movie. This highly passionate, engaged, intelligent group could share openly and candidly only because of the level of trust that was in the space. By keeping the conversation focused on the problem, removing any power structure from the discussion, and making it safe for people to share their honest opinion, the Braintrust groups were highly effective for the Pixar team.
“When the problem happens, pause. Don’t be reactive,” said Catmull. “If someone comes in and tells you something you don’t want to hear, pause. Take the time to listen. By pausing you are not instilled with fear. The ability to pause opens you up to listening.”
Failure has two meanings that are intertwined in our minds. The first is that failure is part of a life experience, a powerful learning tool. You try something, it doesn’t work, you learn. The second is that failure is to be feared – companies fail, relationships fail, bridges fail. We have to be conscious of the second meaning, and recognize the importance of failure as we strive to achieve new things.
We can only call it failure after it happened, which means that we have to continue to re-evaluate and try again. In Ed’s words, “You keep making mistakes… but at some point, if you’re already failing, you’re actually more open to learning.”
“For all the times we gave a chance to someone who was 'unproven' in the role and asked them to rise to the occasion, there was only about 5% of the time that they were unable to do so,” said Catmull. “That means you had a 95% chance of something great.
“In giving someone new a chance, you may find that there are people who will take risks. Often, when someone is given a chance to do more than they know how to do, they will work harder to prove that they can do it… It’s a lower risk proposition than most people think.”
When you build a culture of leadership, ownership, and reflection, and when those involved believe they have an obligation to make it work, people are energized to work creatively to achieve the end goal.
Ed Catmull is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disneytoon Studios. For more than 25 years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing 14 consecutive #1 box office hits, which have grossed more than $8.7 billion at the worldwide box office to date and have won 30 Academy Awards®.
His book Creativity, Inc. — co-written with journalist Amy Wallace and years in the making — is a distillation of the ideas and management principles Catmull has used to develop a creative culture. A book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, it also grants readers an all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation Studios — into the meetings, post-mortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history have been made.
Catmull has been honoured with five Academy Awards®, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry. Catmull earned a BS in Computer Science and Physics and a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Utah. In 2005, the University of Utah presented him with an honorary doctoral degree in Engineering.