Creativity Inc – Ed Catmull

Creativity Inc – Ed Catmull
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Lindsey Collins, a producer who has worked with Andrew on several films, imagines herself as a chameleon who can change her colors depending on which constituency she’s dealing with. The goal is not to be fake or curry favor but to be whatever person is needed in the moment. “In my job, sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m a follower; sometimes I run the room and sometimes I say nothing and let the room run itself,” she says. Adapting to your environment, like a lizard that blends into whatever background it finds itself in, is Lindsey’s way of managing the competing—and potentially crazy-making—forces she encounters in her job. “I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.”

How does one make such an assessment? Lindsey jokes that she employs “the Columbo effect”—a reference to Peter Falk’s iconic TV detective, who appeared to bumble his way through a case, even as he inevitably zeroed in on the culprit. When mediating between two groups who aren’t communicating well, for example, Lindsey feigns confusion. “You say, ‘You know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand. I’m sorry I’m slowing you down here with all my silly questions, but could you just explain to me one more time what that means? Just break it down for me like I’m a two-year-old.’ ”

Good producers—and good managers—don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, they listen, they wrangle, coax, and cajole. And their mental models of their jobs reflect that. Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”

When she’s not imagining herself in an elevator, Katherine pretends she’s a shepherd guiding a flock of sheep. Like Lindsey, she spends some time assessing the situation, figuring out the best way to guide her flock. “I’m going to lose a few sheep over the hill, and I have to go collect them,” she says. “I’m going to have to run to the front at times, and I’m going to have to stay back at times. And somewhere in the middle of the flock, there is going to be a bunch of stuff going on that I can’t even see. And while I’m looking for the sheep that are lost, something else is going to happen that I’m not aiming my attention at. Also, I’m not entirely sure where we’re going. Over the hill? Back to the barn? Eventually, I know we will get there, but it can be very, very slow. You know, a car crosses the road, and the sheep are all in the way. I’m looking at my watch going, ‘Oh, my God, sheep, move already!’ But the sheep are going to move how they move, and we can try to control them as best we can, but what we really want to do is pay attention to the general direction they’re heading and try to steer a little bit.”

Notice how each of these models contains so many of the themes we’ve talked about so far: the need to keep fear in its place, the need for balance, the need to make decisions (but also to admit fallibility), and the need to feel that progress is being made. What’s important, I think, as you construct the mental model that works best for you, is to be thoughtful about the problems it is helping you to solve.

I’ve always been intrigued, for example, by the way that many people use the analogy of a train to describe their companies. Massive and powerful, the train moves inexorably down the track, over mountains and across vast plains, through the densest fog and darkest night. When things go wrong, we talk of getting “derailed” and of experiencing a “train wreck.” And I’ve heard people refer to Pixar’s production group as a finely tuned locomotive that they would love the chance to drive. 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 companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.

I am constantly rethinking my own models for how to deal with uncertainty and change and how to enable people. At Lucasfilm, I had the image of riding bareback on a herd of wild horses, some of them faster than others, trying to keep steady. Other times, I’ve imagined my feet on either side of one of those balance boards that moves atop a cylindrical roller. No matter what image I come up with, questions remain: How do we keep from veering too far to one side or another? How do we follow our carefully laid plans yet remain open to ideas that are not our own? Over time, with new experiences, my model has continued to evolve—and is still evolving, even as I write this book.