Outside of my mentors and defining moments, books have accelerated my learning both professionally and personally and I truly believe that reading is the single most important thing you can do to better yourself. In light of this, every Monday I will be reviewing a book that has impacted me.
Today’s book is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. If you are a leader of a team or company you should definitely read this book, but anyone can benefit from reading it. In many ways, we are all leaders.
Ed Catmull is the Co-Founder of Pixar and in his book, he shares the story and lessons he learned while building Pixar. More specifically, he explains Pixar’s unique leadership practices that made them one of the most innovative and successful companies the world has ever seen (he also got to work side by side with Steve Jobs, so he shares very insightful conversations and things he learned from Steve. I outline one of the things I took away from their time together below).
Things I learned from the book:
- We are all creative. As an employee (or simply a human) you have the ability to be creative. You just need to be in the right environment with the right mentorship and believe in your abilities.
- As a leader, you must manage your employees and yourself to the unknown. Loosen the control, take risks, accept the fact that you as a leader can be wrong.
- Ed states in the book, “The view of our past is hardly clearer than our view of the future.The past should be our teacher, not our master.” Love this quote.
- Some of the first questions Steve Jobs ever asked Ed Catmull included: “What do you want?” and “What are your long-term goals?” As a leader, you need to find out what is important to those you are leading.
- You must create a “safe environment” which allows employees to feel comfortable to speak up and talk to anyone regardless of title. This is extremely important for all leaders because most tend to just manage up and forget about managing down. Ed realized quickly that the latter was possibly even more important.
- Every company has problems and the cost of not finding the problem is much more than the cost of fixing them once they happen.
- Hire people who you believe you could work for one day and that you believe are smarter than you. So many people do not follow this advice. I truly believe most leaders are intimidated or scared to hire someone who threatens their intelligence or job because they may have a higher ceiling.
- As Ed learned from George Lucas, you must follow the process, but do not lose sight of the end goal. Employees will come and go, but keep moving forward even if you do not know where you are headed.
- All teams and employees matter. If one team or one employee fails to achieve their goal, then we all fail. You must have a mentality and culture that lets everyone know that what they do is vital to the company’s success.
- As a leader, you must learn to see problems before they happen, which is very difficult. Your employees typically know or see the problems before you. It’s simple. Just ask them, because typically they are too afraid to tell you.
- A culture that is innovative and achieves their end goal is able to meet “unexpected problems with unexpected responses”.
Other things I learned:
Ask the right questions, and focus on what you value as a company
Ed explains how he got advice from Silicon Valley experts about how to price Pixar’s first imaging computer. Their advice was to price high to start, and if necessary you can always lower it. He quickly learned that was a mistake. He took advice without asking questions.
Pixar gained the reputation of being powerful but too expensive. Because of this, their sales got off to a slow start. He realized he failed to ask the right questions, and should have been focused on what he and the company valued. Meeting the expectations of customers and investing in software development so customers could get more value in their product were their priorities.
Focus more on the end result than the actual process
Making the process cheaper and trying to perfect it is OK, but that cannot be the goal. The goal is to get to your end result. Ed explains that he sees so many companies focused on fixing and streamlining the “process” which leads to groups thinking they are doing the right things. But it ultimately limits communications between teams and blinds you from what the real problem is. This leads to teams becoming distracted from the end goal. This is a mindset I believe everyone should possess. A team or company needs to have one specific end goal, and everyone then needs to be aligned with that goal. You must set the end goal prior to setting short-term goals. This is so simple, yet so many companies and teams fail to understand this. The process will look like a roller coaster and that is ok. Hitting the end goal is all that matters.
Change is Good
Successful companies and people tend to view any change as a threat to the company culture or way things work. It is easier for people to hold onto processes and things that work and just stick to what they know. The ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ model to some is the winning model, and shockingly most companies fall into this trap. Most people don’t want to hear that no matter what you do things change. The key to a successful company or even an individual reaching the end goal is by changing and evolving. If we try to tighten our control over what we already know and choose not to change, then we impede our creativeness. And just a side note, Ed discusses the person who changed his mind the most of out of anyone he knew… Steve Jobs.
Trust your employees at all levels to find solutions
Big and small problems should be treated the same, and you should create a response structure that matches the problem structure. In a creative and innovative environment, people are allowed to solve problems with no permissions and we are OK with people making mistakes. The person or team can then solve the problem, and it allows the company to catch a problem early on. Don’t wait to get approval or the problem could destroy your business.
Leadership and life lesson from someone who worked side by side with Steve Jobs
As I mentioned, Ed had the unique experience to work with Steve Jobs. After working so closely with Steve, he shares his definition of the world people believe Steve Jobs lived in which they call the “Reality Distortion Field”. Here is Ed’s definition after his time with Steve:
“It stems from my belief that our decisions and actions have consequences and that those consequences shape our future. Our actions change our reality. Our intentions matter. Most people believe that their actions have consequences but don’t think through the implications of that belief. But Steve did. He believed, as I do, that it is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world.”
To me, it seems as if Steve Jobs was just human, and he lived in the same world we lived in. He just did something really well and he believed in his abilities. He didn’t stop. He kept going and he reached his end result. He changed the world.
How has this book impacted me?
From a leadership standpoint, my number 1 goal is to strive to help my reps become not just better salespeople but better individuals. The idea of focusing on the unknown is exactly how you can do that, and Ed lays out very simple practices that you can follow to help create this environment where people can reach their full potential.
As an Individual, one of my core values is to learn every day and learning from other people on how they achieved their potential is easily the best way to learn. This book specifically was helpful because it solidified some of the leadership ideas and personal values that I am so passionate about. After reading a book like this, it shows me how simple life is at its core and how people like Ed Catmull became successful doing things that you and I can do. As long as I focus on trying to learn every day and have a laser focus on my end goal, nothing can stop me.
Now, Wake Up! It’s Day One. Time to lead your team and yourself into the unknown. And purchase the book here: Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration