I just heard an amazing talk by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Disney for the Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in San Diego.  After Pixar became a success and went public (a 20-year goal they had) Catmull
asked himself, “what’s next?” and came up with the idea that he wanted to make creativity sustainable. His thinking about it lead to several concepts that he now claims blocks creativity. He has come to believe that facilitating creativity is about removing the barriers to creativity rather than being more creative.

Ed Catmull Speaking at Society for Neuroscience,
San Diego, 2013
Not feeling able to be honest or candid was one of those barriers. He described ideation processes and brain storming sessions and how feeling confined by politeness and a respect for others prevents people form sharing open and honest reflections and ideas. As a result, Catmull worked to create more mechanisms to allow people to be more candid. He called this “Brain trust”. Removing the power dynamic was one necessity. He also said something that I thought was a brilliant conceptualization of the issue: In order to get at the “truth” and reduce the “distortion from power imbalance”, the structure of information flow needs to be separate from the structure of organizational hierarchy. His goal then, always make it a safe environment for people to fail and make mistakes, which was another one of his insights into facilitating creativity.

In a creative context he believes that zero errors is a ridiculous concept, which is different from other industries where zero errors does make sense, like the life-and-death scenarios ingrained in surgery and air traffic travel and control. He suggests that in a creative industry (or an industry that requires creativity like innovation and science perhaps) that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. He gave an example of a movie that he was doing that had 8 months left in the budget when they realized there was a problem - a problem that would require 6 months to fix just to get back to a place where they had 8 months of work left to do. Clearly, this was a problem. So he gave an hour lecture to his crew on how it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission in order to inspire them to do whatever it took to fix this problem now. After 2 days, 2 people came back with the problem fixed thwarting the 6-month detour. Refers to an acceptance of errors and mistakes, he also commented on how he believes it’s better to fix errors than prevent them because working to prevent errors take a lot of time and energy and impedes creativity.

Catmull also described the “notion of the hidden” and the unknown unknowns. What really struck a cord with me was when he said that he did not know a creative person who could articulate the vision they had at the outset. Instead, it was something that just rolled out when unobstructed and became an articulation, eventually. Many of us have felt that struggle of feeling forced to articulate an experience or an emotional or passionate pursuit that we simply could not describe. It gave me a great sense of peace to know that I do not -- and possibly should not -- force myself into articulation before I am done brewing. 

Catmull ended with a story about when Pixar joined Disney. Pixar was thriving and Disney was failing. So they decided to keep the two separate in order to maintain the health of Pixar. But with Disney they started shifting some strategies around, according to principles he just described in reducing the barriers to creativity. The result was a resurgence of Disney’s dominance in the creative world. And more interesting and more important was that they didn’t change the people. The same creative types were there, working away. But what they needed someone to let them be creative again and that’s what happened. 

After the talk, Huda Akil, a neuroscientist and past Society for Neuroscience President, made an analogy with the idea that humans are born dumb and some stay dumb suggesting that humans are also born creative and some of them remain creative. This is an important way of considering creativity. It is in all of us. Creativity is our nature as humans with these incredible brains. What we do when we lack creativity is prevent ourselves from exhibiting a very natural component of who we actually are. 

Full talk by Ed Catmull is now available online: 
AuthorMandy Wintink