What is the recipe for magic? Something magical has been occurring for years at Pixar, but what exactly? We read about Pixar in business books, and have seen their continuous stream of 14 #1 blockbuster animated movies. Chief wizard Steve Jobs' affiliation with Pixar added to their allure. In reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, you sense that his association with Pixar influenced Jobs' maturation and reinvention which enabled him to successfully lead Apple again into creating dazzling products.
Like the scene from Disney's animated movie SLEEPING BEAUTY in which the magic spells cast create plumes of blue and pink smoke to poof out of the building's chimney, the spells cast at Pixar beguile to come closer and peek in the windows. Just what is going on there?
The doors of Pixar are thrown open in this book. Welcoming us is self-effacing Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull who provides a captivating guided tour. He tells the tale of Pixar from its inception. Catmull's purpose is not only to tell, but to teach. He said that as he saw many smart, creative companies go off the rails, he wondered what causes a dangerous disconnect at many creative companies? And how do you build a successful company and sustainable creative culture which will outlast its leaders?
He teaches the principles and mechanisms which structure and fertilize Pixar's creativity. It's said we have morphed from the agricultural age through the industrial and information ages to the creative age. Understanding how to thrive in this creative age seems paramount. Living a life is a creative act - the lessons are applicable to personal lives, too. It's a compelling story with characters we already know and love ... Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Nemo, John Lasseter, George Lucas and the iconic Steve Jobs. (Catmull has an insightful perspective on the purpose for Jobs' legendary abrasiveness.)
Catmull writes, "I've spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another. The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it....The thesis of this book is that there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process." Catmull is obsessed with identifying the impediments and destructive forces which harm creativity. He likes creating "mechanisms" which deal with "uncertainty, instability, lack of candor, and the things we cannot see." He writes that we need to make room for what we do not know, and pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. He explains, "...identifying these destructive forces isn't merely a philosophical exercise. It is a crucial, central mission."
Pixar and Catmull were engaged with something that had never been done before: creating computer animated films. You read about the genesis of the idea, and how it was midwifed into existence by Catmull, Jobs and Lasseter. It was a messy birth. The baby was ugly at first, and almost didn't make it. But Catmull learned how to protect and nurture its growth. He read books on management, and was particularly influenced by Edward Deming who taught the Japanese about quality at Toyota. The principles which applied to creating flawless Japanese autos, Catmull applied to creating one-of-a-kind animated films.
A sampling of favorite maxims which propel Pixar - you'll enjoy finding your favorites:
* Foster a creative culture that continually asks questions
* Story is king
* Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea - the right people will eventually come up with a great idea
* A company's communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody
* Treasure the 'organic ferment' that fuels true inspiration
* Hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions
* The future is not a destination, it is a direction
* When it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy
* Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process - reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through-line or a hollow character finds its soul
* Think of most activities as teaching
* Rather than fear randomness, ... we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us
* Since change is inevitable, the question is: Do you act to stop it or do you become the master of change by accepting it and being open to it?
There's so much to love in this book: the story behind the dailies, research trips, short experiments and Pixar University, for example. While the tale of Pixar is inspiring, there's a second act when Disney asks Catmull and his team to lead Disney animation along with Pixar. They loosened a more buttoned-up, hierarchical culture at Disney so it could flow with its own innovative juices. That's a fascinating business case study.
Then there's the poignant afterword on the Steve Jobs they knew, which is a more nuanced look at Jobs by folks who worked with him for 26 years. Catmull and Pixar saw sides of Jobs' complexity and humanity a biographer may not have access to. Jobs' droll side comment to Catmull on the red carpet of the Academy Awards in itself is worth purchasing this book to read. Finally, Catmulll lists "starting points" Pixar lives by.
Whether or not this book is the #1 bestseller of 2014, it deserves to be. Can't imagine a more spellbinding tale - and best of all, this time the magic isn't fantasy, it really happened. The lessons shared in this book should help its readers to live and work more happily ever after.