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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Arc Of The Story

There are a lot of management books published every year. Some are great, some are good, many are awful.

Creativity, Inc. : Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace is not about organizational development, so much as organizational transformation. For many readers, that will be like trying to see infrared, but if you are careful and attentive, you can learn a lot.

Ed Catmull wanted to do a computer generated animation feature film. That took him over twenty years. He started as a Unix programmer at the University of Utah building tools that were shared in the community. He was doing open source before open source.

That led to working for George Lucas to provide computerized backgrounds for Star Wars. He was working at the edge of what supercomputers could provide feature films, but it wasn’t enough, yet.

When Lucas had to sell his computer operation, they were almost sold to twenty companies. Finally, they were bought by Steve Jobs, post Apple, and so began a twenty five year partnership, the longest Jobs had.

Now I read the tech press, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs  and Haunted Empire, by Yukari Kane.  I even worked for Steve Jobs as an organizational transformation consultant, until he got fired from Apple, before he met Ed Catmull.

I never bought into the Steve Jobs is a genius, Steve Jobs is an asshole reputation the media loved. He worked me hard and appreciated what I brought. For a time we were moving mountains.

Ed Catmull worked constructively with Jobs for far longer, and sees a better arc of the story, about a talented person who kept getting better at using his gifts. I like Ed Catmull’s appreciation of Steve Jobs. It is better, more nuanced, more valuable, than anyone else’s.

While he was in that relationship, he was running a supercomputer company called Pixar, and they quickly sold all the installations they were going to sell. So the same people who were building and selling the system became the best users of the Pixar system and did computer generated short movies that won Oscars and other awards.

Next they tooled up and created Toy Story,  the first feature length computer animated film. Ed Catmull had overrun his vision, and it was way more profitable than selling computer systems.

Catmull talks about the letdown of achieving his life work and formulating a next vision, to build a company that would do incredible work and nourish the people in the company. Once he defined it, he set out to build it, keeping the same key players while constantly expanding the team.

I noticed that he has been with the same posse for over thirty years. Their situation kept getting better, but people were by and large not replaced, they were developed, and kept on getting better and meeting new challenges. That’s an heroic perspective to emulate.

One of the points he keeps coming back to is the arc of the story. A great film needs a great story. He writes that if you give a great story to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre story to a great team, they will either fix the story or develop a better one. This book is a great story

A key message of the book is that all movies originally suck. The work of the team is to make them not suck. And he provides gripping stories of how that was done for every Pixar movie. This is one value of the book.

Page 103 - The difference between criticism and constructive criticism is that with the latter, you are not just criticizing, you are constructing.

Page 141 - There is a difference between reviewers who pounce and kill and reviewers seeking and promoting good ideas. Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow.

Page 171 – Hindsight is not 20-20. We barely know what happened in our past. We only see a small part of what happened. So if you can’t see the real past and you can’t know future, the best strategy is to behave well, work hard, and not kid yourself.

Page 203 – How do we enable our people to solve problems is the correct perspective, not how do we keep our people from screwing up. The “keepers” can never see that they don’t contribute.

He has some awesome stories of casual heroics from the members of the team, how a mistakenly erased feature was not lost, how six months of rework was done over a weekend. Catmull takes a fierce pride from belonging to an organization that does heroics regularly. So does everyone else at Pixar.

But wait, there’s more!

The Promised Land  for animators is Disney Studios. But Disney Animation hadn’t done a successful feature in over a decade. Disney Animation management decides their most original work will be making sequels to Pixar movies.

Relations get frosty. Finally Steve Jobs tells Catmull and team they have to sell Pixar to Disney. Pixar needs Disney’s marketing and distribution capabilities.

There is a new CEO at Disney, who has been through two mergers, one good and one bad, who says this will have to be a good merger, otherwise the money is wasted.

Ed Catmull becomes president of both Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. The game becomes can he and the Pixar team bring their magic to Disney Animation: from building a successful culture to installing a successful culture...while keeping Pixar moving forward?

That is not easy, and the short answer is that they do. Both teams are winning awards, creating top grossing animations, and making money. To find out how they do this, you’ll have to read the book.

Ed Catmull reinvented himself at least three times, and brought his team along. Pixar’s celebration of Steve Job’s death had me crying, but I cry easy. If there was ever a CEO who saw through the bullshit and bravado to an honorable course in a changing environment, it is Ed Catmull. If you’re serious about being better, this is a book to read.

Looking for more? Check out The Final Frontier.
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