Matt W. Kane

Creativity inc.

Introduction: lost and found.

  • The point is, we value self-expression.
  • What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view: that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making yourself uncomfortable, and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.
  • For 5 straight years, we wanted to do Toy Story our way. We’d resisted the advice of Disney executives who believed that since they had such a success with musicals, we two should fit our movie with songs.
  • On a personal level, Toy Story represented the fulfillment of a goal I had pursued for more than two decades and had dreamed about since I was a boy.
  • If I couldn’t animate by hand, there had to be another way. In graduate school, I’d quietly set the goal of making the first computer animated feature film, and I’ve worked tirelessly for 20 years to accomplish it
  • What interested me was not that the company’s rose or fell or that the landscape continually shifted as technology changed but that the leaders of these companies seemed so focused on the competition that they never developed any deep introspection about other destructive forces that were at work.
  • I began to see my role as a leader more clearly. I would devote myself to learning how to build not just a successful company but a sustainable creative culture.
  • This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving.
  • I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know – not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept the risk, they must trust the people that work with, to strive to clear the path for them, and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit that we don’t know we can hope to learn it.

Chapter 1: animated.

  • When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchies are meaningless. That’s what I believe.
  • Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way, completely unaware of how doing so under mind our own core principles. Why were we so blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we done nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded. There was not sitting at the center of the table, meanwhile, so quite clearly how it is stablished a pecking order but presumed that we, the leaders, had intended that outcome. Who are they, then, to complain?
  • Even though we were conscious that a room’s dynamics are critical to any good discussion, our vantage point blinded as to what was right before our eyes.
  • This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise, and they always do, disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multistep endeavor. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve.
  • The definition of a superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being.
    • T-rex or Slinky Dog or desk lamp, if your sense that not just movement but intention, or, put another way, emotion – than the animator has done their job.
  • Thought it was housed within the defense department, its mission was ostensibly peaceful: to support scientific researchers in America’s universities in the hopes of preventing what it termed, technological surprise. By sponsoring our best minds, the architects of ARPA believed, we come up with a better answer. Looking back, I still admire that enlightened reaction to a serious threat.
  • The leaders of my department understood that to create a fertile laboratory, they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy

Chapter 2: Pixar is born.

  • Once Alex brought me in, he left it to me to assemble a team. I have to give that to him: he had total confidence in the people he hired. This is something I admired and, later, what to do myself.
  • The lessons of ARPA had lodged in my brain: when faced with a challenge, get smarter.
  • Without hesitation, I rattled off the names of several people who are doing impressive work in the variety of technical areas. My willingness to do this reflected my worldview, forged in academia, that any hard problems should have many good minds simultaneously trying to solve it. Not to acknowledge that seems silly. Only later I would learn that the guys at Lucasfilm had already interviewed all the people I listed and had asked them in turn to make similar recommendations, and not one of them has suggested any other names!
  • By the time I got to Lucas film, the momentum of swinging to the workstation computer such as those made by Silicon Valley upstarts, as well as IBM, but by that time, everyone could see that workstations were only another stop on the way to PCs and eventually desktop computers.
  • The resulting environment felt as protected as an academic institution – an idea that would stay with me and help shape but I would later try to build at Pixar.
  • Wild George wanted his new video editing system in place, the film editor at Lucas Films did not. They’re perfectly happy with the system they had already mastered, which involved actually cutting film it to snippets with a razor blade even tasting them back together. They couldn’t have been less interested in making changes that would slow them down in the short term.
  • They take comfort in their familiar ways, and change being uncomfortable. When it came time to test out of work, the editors refused to participate. The certainty that video editing would revolutionize the process didn’t matter, and neither did George’s backing. Because the people our new system was intended to serve were resistant to it, progress screeched to a halt.
  • Clearly, it wasn’t enough for managers to have good ideas – they had to be able to engender support for those ideas among the people who would be charged with employing them. I took that lesson to heart.
  • The story had been told, Andrey told about how, as the young filmmaker, in the wake of American Graffiti success, he was advised to demand a higher salary on his next movie, star wars. That would be the expected move in Hollywood: bump up your quote. Not for George, though. He skipped the raise all together and asked instead to retain ownership of the licensing and merchandising rights to Star Wars. The studio that was distributing the film, 20th Century Fox, readily agreed to his request, thinking it was not giving up much. George would prove them wrong, setting the stage for major changes in the industry he left. He bet on himself and won.
  • So, when our two like-minded overlords demanded a list of names of people to lay off, Alva and I gave them two; his and mine.
  • The morning of the big negotiating session, all of us but the CFO were on time: Steve and his attorney, me, Alvy, and our attorney, Lucasfilms attorneys, and an investment banker. At precisely 10 a.m. Steve looked around, finding the CFO missing, and started the meeting without him! In one swift move, Steve had not only foiled the CFO attempt to place himself atop the pecking order, but he had grabbed control of the meeting. This would be the kind of strategic, aggressive play that would define Steve stewardship of Pixar for years to come – once we joined forces, he became our protector, as fierce on our behalf as he was on his own.
  • Steve paid five million dollars to spin Pixar off of Lucasfilm – – and then after the sale, he agreed to pay another five million dollars to fund of the company, with 70% of the stock going to Steve and 30% to the employees.

Chapter 3: a defining goal.

  • There’s nothing quite like the ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.
  • He was young and driven and not yet attuned to his impact on others.
  • At the time, we were a computer manufacturing company, so we had to learn very quickly what it meant to produce computers. It was at this time that I happened upon one of the most valuable lessons from the early days of Pixar. And the lesson came from an unexpected source – the history of Japanese manufacturing. No one thinks about the assembly line as a place that engenders creativity. Until that point, I just associate manufacturing war with the efficiency then with inspiration. But I soon discovered that the Japanese have found a way of making production a creative and ever that engaged its workers – I completely radical and counterintuitive idea at the time.
  • The Japanese assembly line became a place where workers engagement strengthened the resulting product. And that would eventually transform manufacturing around the world.
  • For me, this discovery was bracing. Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems.
  • Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just play lip sync service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality and self-assessment that really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became – wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day in day out full time job. And what I wanted to do.

Chapter 4: establishing Pixar’s identity.

  • The members of this group, which at some point we started calling the brain trust, were proven problem solvers who are magnificently together to dissect scenes that were falling flat.
  • At this point, the brain trust made the first of two key changes: they added a character named Weezy the penguin, who tells woody that he is been on the same shelf 4 months because of a broken squeaker. Weezy introduces the idea early on that no matter how cherished, when he gets damaged, is likely to be shelved, tossed aside – maybe for good. Weezy, then establishes the emotional state of the story.
  • One morning in June, and overtired artist drove to work with his infant child strapped into the back seat, intending to deliver the baby to a daycare on the way. Some time later, after he’d been at work for a few hours, his wife happened to ask him how drop off had gone – which is when he realized that he left their child in the car in the boiling Pixar parking lot. They rushed out to find the baby unconscious and poured cold water over him immediately. Thankfully, the child was okay but the trauma of this moment – the ‘what could have been’ – was imprinted deeply on my brain. Asking this much of our people, even when they wanted to give it, was not acceptable. I had expected the road to be rough, but I had to admit that we were coming apart. By the time the film is complete, a full third of the staff would have some kind of repetitive stress injury.
  • Talented storytellers had found a way to make viewers care, and the evolution of the story line made it abundantly clear to me: if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. 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.
  • It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. This means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. There’s an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet in my experience is not obvious at all. Getting the right people in the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.
  • People think so little about this that, in all these years, only one person in the audience has ever pointed out the false dichotomy. To me, the answer should be obvious: ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas.
  • To reiterate, it is the focus on people: their best work habits, their talents, their values – that is absolutely essential to any creative adventure.
  • Once you are aware of the suitcase / handle problem, you’ll see it everywhere. People going on two words and stories that are often just stand ins for real action and meaning.
  • Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top shelf products. Words like quality and excellent are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless. Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting new terminology, thinking that uses fresh words will bring them closer to their goals. When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, which migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning.

Chapter 5: honesty and candor.

  • As I’ve discussed, first we draw storyboards of the script and then edit them together with temporary voices and music to make a crude mockup of the film, known as reels. Then the brain trust watches this version of the movie and discusses what’s not ringing true, what could be better, what’s not working at all. Notably, they do not prescribe how to fix the problems they diagnose. They test three points, they make suggestions, but it is up to the director to settle on a path forward. A new version of the movie is generated every 3 to 6 months, and the process repeats itself. It takes about 12,000 storyboard drawings to make one 90 minute reel.
  • The second difference is that the Brain Trust has no authority. This is crucial: the director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given.
  • We believe that ideas – and thus, films – only become great when they are challenged and tested. In academia, peer review is the process by which professors are evaluated by others in their field.
  • Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more tender in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy or being hashed out.

Chapter 6: fear and failure.

  • The place, called poets loft, is all red wood and glass – perched on stilts over Tomales Bay, a perfect place to think.

Chapter 7: the hungry beast and the ugly baby.

  • The solution of course, is to feed the beast, to occupy its time and attention, putting its talents to use. Even when you do that, though, the beast cannot be sated. It is one of life’s cruel irony is that when it comes to feeding the beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why I at too many companies, the schedule, drives the output not the strength of the idea at the front end.
  • The committee was composed of many of the field most prominent players, all of whom I knew, it was a group that took the task of selecting papers very seriously. At each of the meetings, I was struck that there seems to be two kinds of reviews: some who would look for flaws in the papers, and then pounce to kill them, and others who started from a place of seeking and promoting good ideas. When the ‘idea protectors’, saw flaws they pointed them out gently, in the spirit of improving the paper – not eviscerating it. Interestingly the paper killers were not aware that they were serving some other agenda, which was often in my estimation to show their colleagues how high their standards were. Both groups thought there were protecting the proceedings, but only one group understood that by looking for something new and surprising, they were offering the most valuable kinds of protection. That you the feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.
  • At Pixar, protection means populating story meetings with idea protectors, people who understand the difficult, ephemeral process of developing the new. It means supporting our people, because we know that the best ideas emerge when we have made it safe to walk through problems.
  • If we have more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate, and don’t vilify their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed. When random problems pop up in this scenario, it causes no panic because the threat of failure has been removed.

Chapter 9: the hidden.

  • As my position changed, people became more careful how they spoke and acted in my presence. I don’t think that my actions changed in a way that prohibited this, my position did. And what this meant was that things I’d once been privy to became increasingly unavailable to me. Gradually, snarky behavior, browsing and rudeness disappeared from my view – from my view, anyway. I rarely saw bad behavior because people wouldn’t exhibit in front of me. I was out of a certain loop, and it was essential that I never lose sight of that fact. If I wasn’t careful to be vigilant and self aware, I might well draw wrong conclusions.
  • Now that you are a manager, I can no longer be as candid with you. Instead, many new leaders assume wrongly, that their access to information is unchanged. But that is just one example of how hidden ness affect a manager’s ability to lead.
  • This is a great example of the 40% rule that Pete refer to: we aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illustration that we have a complete picture is extraordinary persuasive.
  • This sounds simple enough – under the viewpoints of others – but it can be enormously difficult to put into practice throughout your company. That’s because when humans see things that challenge our mental models, we tend not to resist them but to ignore them. This has been scientifically proven. The concept of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to favor information, true or not that confirms their pre-existing beliefs – was introduced by Peter Watson.
  • The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.

Chapter 10: broadening our view.

  • The second is that we don’t typically see the boundary between new information coming in from the outside and our old, establish mental models – we perceive both together as a unified experience.
  • The third is that when we unknowingly get caught up in our own interpretations, we become inflexible, less able to deal with the problems at hand. And the fourth idea is that people who work or live together – people like Nick and Ana, for example have, by virtue of proximity and shared history, models of the world that are deeply and sometimes hopelessly intertwined with one another. If my wife and I have been traveling with just dick or Ann, he or she almost certainly would have responded appropriately, but because we were together, their combined world was more complex.
  • They want to please, impress and show their worth. They really don’t want to embarrass themselves by showing incomplete work or ill conceived ideas, and they don’t want to say something dumb in front of the director. The first step to teach them that everyone at Pixar shows incomplete work, and everyone is free to make suggestions. When they realize this the embarrassment goes away – and when embarrassment goes away, people become more creative.
  • Dailies are designed to promote everyone’s ability to be open to others, in the recognition that individual creativity is magnified by the people around you.
  • Craft is what we are expected to know, art is the unexpected use of our craft.
  • You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar. (Certainty)
  • The oversight group had been put in place without anyone asking a fundamental question: how do we enable our people to solve problems? Instead, they ask: how do we preserve our people from screwing up? That approach never encourages a creative response. My rule of thumb is that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is they want, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.
  • That’s because, to the brain all parts of the face are not created equal. For example, since the eyes and mouth – communication – are more important to us than for heads, more emphasis is put on recognizing them, and when we draw them, we tend to draw them too large, while the forehead is drawn too small. We don’t draw a face as it is, rather we draw it as our model says it is.
  • Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t.
  • Over the years we have offered free classes in all of them. This man spending not only the time to find the best outside teachers but also the real cost of freedom people up during their work day to take the classes. So what exactly were they getting out of all of this? It wasn’t that the class material directly. Instead, there were some things about a lighting technician sat next to someone experienced in animation. Who’s been sitting next to legal or accounting, proved extremely valuable. Simply by providing an excuse for all of us to toil side by side, humbled by the challenge of sketching a self-portrait or writing a computer code change the culture for the better.
  • Instead, it was to send a signal about how important it is for everyone of us to keep learning new things.
  • It puts me in mind of a night, many years ago when I found myself at an art exhibit at my daughter’s elementary school. As I walked up and down the hallways, looking at the paintings and statues made by kids in grades K through 5, I noticed the first and second graders drawings look better and fresher than those in fifth grade. Somewhere along the line, the fifth graders have recognize their drawings did not look realistic, and they have become self conscious and tentative. The result? Their drawings became more stilted and stayed, less inventive because they probably thought that others would recognize this fault. The fear of judgement was hindering creativity.

Chapter 11: the unmade future.

  • This is key to an idea I introduced earlier in the book: the director or leader can never lose the confidence of their crew. As long as you have been candid and had a good reason for making your, not flawed in retrospect, decisions, your crew will keep going. If you find that the ship is just spinning around – and if you assert that such meaningless activity is, in fact forward motion then the crew will book.
  • I’ve talked to my colleague who perform a variety of different jobs, I’ve come to respect that the most important thing about a mental model is that it enables whoever relies on it to get their job, whatever is done.
  • I’ve now described several models, and the thing I believe they have in common is the search for an unseen destination – for land across the ocean, for light at the end of the tunnel, for a way out of the maze, for the mountain itself.
  • What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position – that driving the train is the way to shape their company’s future. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track
  • One model that has been extremely helpful to me I found completely by accident. They came from the study of mindfulness, which has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, both in academia and in business. Those who write about it focus on how it helps people reduce stress in their lives and direct their attention. But for me, it also help to clarify my thinking about how groups of creative people work best together.
  • Sensing that I needed a break, she arranged for me to attend a silent meditation retreat at the Shambala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. The week-long immersion was open to beginners.
  • The search for a clear mind is one of the fundamental goals of creative people, but they’re out each one of us travels to get there is unmarked. For me, a man who is always valued introspection, silence was a path I had never tried before. I’ve gone on a silent retreat every year since, and then addition to benefiting personally, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the management implications of mindfulness.
  • This model of paying attention to what is in front of you, not hang on too tightly to the past or to the future, has proved immensely useful to me as I have tried to sort out organizational issues and to dissuade my colleagues from clinging to the process or plans that have outlived their usefulness.

Chapter 12: the new challenge.

  • The iTunes deal took about 10 days to complete, either didn’t let entrenched forces get in the way.
  • One thing that struck me about Bob was that he preferred asking questions to holding forth – and his queries where incisive and straightforward. Something unusual have been built at Pixar, he said, and he wanted to understand it. For the first time in all the years that Pixar and Disney had worked together, someone from Disney was asking what we were doing that made our company different.
  • He effectively crushed their spirits, he told us, and that had been wrong. Should this merger happen, he continued, what we have to do is not make people at Disney Animation feel like they’ve lost. We have to make them feel good about themselves.
  • The complaints boiled down to the fact that they didn’t care for the exceptionalism that are carefully guarded policies implied. My response to this stems less from a loyalty to Pixar then from my commitment to a larger idea: in big organizations there are advantages to consistency, but I strongly believe that smaller groups within the larger whole should be allowed to differentiate themselves and operate according to their own rules, so long as those rules work. This fosters a sense of personal ownership and pride in the company that to my mind, benefits the larger enterprise.
  • This scheduling only encouraged moviegoers to take one look at the film with the word princess in the title and think: that’s for little girls only. To say that we are making a great film but not listen to the input of experience to colleagues within the company imperiled the quality we were so proud of. Quality meant that every aspect: not just the rendering in the storytelling but also the positioning in the marketing needed to be done well.

Chapter 13: notes day

  • These three challenges – and our belief that there was no single big idea that would solve them – let us to try something that we hoped would break the logjam and reinvigorate the studio. We called it Notes Day, & I see it as a stellar example of how to set the table for creativity. Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: how do we have the brain power of our people?
  • These two issues are interconnected. When costs are low, it’s easier to justify taking a risk. Thus, unless we lowered our costs, we would effectively limit the kinds of films that we would be able to make. Cheaper films are made with smaller crew, and everyone agrees that the smaller the crew, the better the working experience.
  • At the time of the off site at Cavallo Point, making a Pixar film required, on average, about 22000 person weeks, the unit of measurement we commonly use in our budget. We needed to reduce that number by about 10%.
  • The problem of doing more with less was interesting to them, and they wanted to engage with it. Think about that – the topic that captured my pics are colleague’s imaginations more than any other was an attempt to be even more aggressive in trying to reduce the budget! They truly understood the problem and its implications. Can you see why I have so much pride in this place?
  • The week before notes day, all facilitators attending a training session to help them keep each morning on track and make sure that everyone, the outgoing, the laid back, and everyone in between was heard from. Then, to make sure something concrete emerged, the working group designed a set of exit forms to be filled out by each session’s participant. Red forms were for proposals, blue forms were for brainstorms and yellow forms or for something we called best practices.
  • On the Friday before notes day, I got an email telling me that I had 1059 people sign up – nearly everyone in the company, given that some employees were on leave or a way. The following Monday, we would discuss 106 topics in 171 sessions managed by 136 facilitators and 66 meeting spaces across are three buildings – from offices to conference rooms to Commons spaces.
  • Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, except to ask, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear. Doing all these things won’t necessarily make the job of managing a creative culture easier. But is isn’t the goal: excellence is.

Afterword: the Steve we knew.

  • Lockheed’s top secret skunkworks division, which designed jet fighters, spy planes and at least one stealth fighter. I love that bit of history – and the fact that the name skunk works itself had been barred from all caps newspaper comic strip. In that strip, there was a running joke about the mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the Skunk Works, where a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients.
  • I recognized there was something very important that they shared. When director’s pitch an idea for example, they invest totally, even though a part of them knows that in the end, it may not work at all. Pitching is a way of testing material, taking it to measure – and importantly, strengthening it. But if the idea doesn’t fly, they’re extremely adept at dropping it and moving on. This is a rare skill, one that Steve had too.
  • That was part of why Pixar made him so proud – because she felt the world was better for the films we made. He used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills. Pixar movies, on the other hand would live forever. He believed, as I do that because they dig for deeper truths, our movies will endure and he found beauty and that idea.