Catmull starts out discussing the need to solve problems in everyday situations, starting with the example of a traditional, long meeting table with people’s names arranged in a hierarchical manner. He makes the point that having a hierarchical setup for a creative project that involves dozens of people is not a good thing, as everyone’s brain power is equally needed to solve problems with a project. As a result, the company removed the old table and set up a new square-based seating arrangement, without a seating chart. Contrasting, but somehow supportive opinions on this can be found in the book The Messy Middle.
From here, Catmull segues into a mini-biographical and historical lesson, describing growing up in the late 1950s in Utah, being transfixed both on the stories and showmanship of Walt Disney’s weekly television shows and growing up in the prosperous post-World War II era.
He singles out the announcement of the Sputnik satellite launch and the American response of starting its own research agency (ARPA) to advance scientific progress locally. He speaks of his early artistic ambitions (without the requisite ability to make it) and his academic push into computer science in the late 1960s.
Most importantly, Catmull speaks of the foundations of his own managerial and project leadership taking place at his alma mater, University of Utah, where ARPA-funded programs were worked on for graduate-level college credit and the inspiration to animate using a computer took hold. This portion of the book is much like the story of Bill Gates told in the book Outliers.
Moving onto his start at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), Catmull recounts hiring people like Alvy Ray Smith. It is here that Catmull makes it a point that he firmly believes in hiring people smarter than he is, which allows for a greater learning experience and a richer collaboration in the workplace. After NYIT, he began working for George Lucas in a new division at Lucasfilm Ltd.
This division’s primary goal was to create a revolutionary film editing system using digital media. It was here where Catmull found a managerial mentor in Lucas, a future partner in hiring Disney’s John Lasseter and both a mentor and partner in future financier Steve Jobs.
The story of Pixar as a company is a well-documented one; its initial business was selling Pixar computers to companies, it added commercial animation production and took its final form as the most successful independent animated film company since Walt Disney, Inc. Catmull continues on with that story, again with side trips into his own journey as a business manager, learning how to deal with Steve Jobs on a regular basis, and the historic lessons of a quality control expert by the name of W. Edwards Deming.
Where Creativity Inc. shines is in the details that seldom get shared with the general public.Catmull speaks of needing to deal with way more internal strife with production employees and the need to be receptive to the internal office environment in order to ensure a steady and reliable workflow, as well as the need to keep a peak employee morale. He also makes a point that management’s open-door policies do not mean that issues aren’t still being addressed.
At the core of the book, Catmull insists upon the guiding principles of creating a culture of candor and the need for respect and equality amongst all employees, not only in terms of basic interaction, but also in terms of suggestions and opinions. It is this which is the foundation for a creative company to thrive. The topic of company culture and building a place where people are heard and encouraged is discussed in great detail in the book Small Giants.