How to Create a Creative Cauldron

A couple of days ago I finished the book Creativity, Inc. One section in particular stood out to me:

[Ivan] Sutherland and Dave Evans, who was chair of the university’s computer science department, were magnets for bright students with diverse interests, and they led us with a light touch. Basically, they welcomed us to the program, gave us workspace and access to computers, and then let us pursue whatever turned us on. The result was a collaborative, supportive community so inspiring that I would later seek to replicate it at Pixar.

One of my classmates, Jim Clark, would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Another, John Warnock, would co-found Adobe, known for Photoshop and the PDF file format, among other things. Still another, Alan Kay, would lead on a number of fronts, from object-oriented programming to “windowing” graphical user interfaces. In many respects, my fellow students were the most inspirational part of my university experience; this collegial, collaborative atmosphere was vital not just to my enjoyment of the program but also to the quality of the work that I did.

Reading about that group and the environment created by Sutheland and Evans made me feel a twinge of jealousy. How awesome would it be to find yourself in an environment like that? How awesome would it be to create one?

These types of creative burgeonings have happened at different scales on occasion throughout history. There was the 14th century Italian Renaissance where there were technology and art flourished on a huge scale.  Later, in late 19th and early 20th century France there was the creative outpouring of the real life equivalents of everyone in the movie Midnight in Paris–Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Gaugin, Degas, Dali, Picasso, Matisse, etc. And there are, as Wikipedia shows, many other examples.

Ed Catmull, the author of the book and a co-founder of Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, did something interesting. After the success of Toy Story, he decided that his new goal would be to synthetically re-create inside Pixar a renaissance-like environment similar to the one he experienced at the University of Utah. It was an ambition goal there were some pretty huge setbacks, but with their record of successful films, it’s clear that he was successful. If there was any doubt, to prove it out, he did it again when he helped turn around the long slump Disney Animation was in once Disney acquired Pixar.

How did he do it? The best answer would be to read Creativity, Inc. Catmull repeatedly states his dislike of condensing knowledge down to sound bites, but he does concede to brevity at the end of the book where he gives a list of tips he found essential to fostering creativity in his companies. Here are a couple of the thirty-three suggestions he gives:

  • It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.
  • There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them.
  • If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.
  • The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal—it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.
  • Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.

The stories in Creativity, Inc. are interesting, especially those that involve Steve Jobs, and there are some good tips to making a working environment a place that encourages creative collaboration.

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