The shelves of bookshops are full of hackneyed management books that tell you how to get rich quick, and maybe realise your true self at the same time – but this book, fortunately, is not one of them. Written by the president of Pixar, who is also a member of the Middle Way Society, it does contain some advice for managers, summarised at the end as ‘thoughts for managing a creative culture’, but the advice offered here has a far more thoroughgoing basis in experience than most management books, and we’re given the full story of that experience. Unlike most management thinkers, Catmull has not just alighted enthusiastically on one type of technique or approach, which may have proved successful in some circumstances, and over-sold it as a universal panacea. Instead he has drawn on the whole of his experience over several decades in which there were both successes and mistakes, in order to remind all those in positions of responsibility how much their success depends on the creativity of those who work for them, and how much mistakes need to be accepted and learned from rather than merely feared.
This book is partly autobiographical, giving Catmull’s account of how he built up Pixar from a hived-off subdivision of Lucas Film (with some help from Steve Jobs) into a highly successful business producing computer-animated films known and praised around the globe. It is also a practical reflection on creativity, and how it can be developed and maintained against the pressures of group conformity in an organisation. It is also, at least implicitly, an exploration of the Middle Way as it has been discovered through trial and error in the experience of Catmull and his associates. Though Catmull told me that he had originally had some chapters introducing the Middle Way more explicitly, and decided after feedback and in consultation with his publishers to cut it, the remainder nevertheless conveys the spirit of the Middle Way with great immediacy. We see how the practice of the Middle Way can flourish even in the context of a competitive business environment.
Pixar’s business is not entirely different from any other business, but one can also see how it has made a particularly good testing-ground for a Middle Way approach to business. For one thing, it depends on technology that is constantly changing, meaning that ways of working need to be kept constantly under review. For another, it depends just as much on artistry and story-telling as it does on technical skill, so that people with very different strengths and skills, artistic, technical, and business-oriented, need to work closely together. This again requires care, reflectiveness and open-mindedness. Despite being creative, Pixar is also highly dependent on teamwork. People need to be willing to try out new ideas and then subject them to rigorous scrutiny from others.
So Pixar could not survive, let alone flourish, if it got into a rut, or if its team became dysfunctional. The maintenance of creativity that Catmull charts is one that involves the practice of the Middle Way, because it requires the avoidance of opposed dogmas of various types. There are dogmas of self-view: that the company has one fixed nature or purpose, or at the other extreme that it should completely abandon the identity that it has developed. There is a constant balancing act involved in the critical but appreciative use of tradition and identity in any organisation. There are also dogmas of value: such a business cannot solely value making money, or artistic expression, or technical advance, but nor can it reject such values. Rather it has to accept all these values, hold them in balance, and accept their inter-relationships. Catmull’s book charts in readable detail how this has been done in the case of Pixar over a period of time.
But perhaps the most challenging dogma for managers to avoid is that of personal or institutional authority. Part of the job of managers is to maintain overall control over the direction of the organisation, but that desire for control is too often also a major hurdle for ‘control freak’ managers who fail to strike a helpful balance in relation to employees that lets them take creative responsibility for their role – or sometimes, at the other extreme, laissez-faire managers who don’t take any interest in what their employees are doing. Clearly one of the most important aspects of Pixar’s success is the culture of candour that Catmull describes. One of his key points is that the structure of communication in an organisation should not follow the structure of the organisation. Anyone should be able to speak to anyone else, and anyone should be able to raise issues so that they can take full responsibility for what they do.
The culture of candour is movingly exemplified in Catmull’s conclusion on ‘Notes Day’ – a special day that Pixar set apart for free and frank discussion about the whole way the organisation worked. At the beginning of Notes Day, Catmull’s fellow manager John Lassetter is depicted as exemplifying this candour by admitting that he’d received a 2½ page list of criticisms from a range of people, particularly of his time management. Nevertheless, John is depicted as putting any personal feelings aside in the full examination and discussion of such criticisms, and urging others to do likewise.
Reading this as someone who has worked largely in the UK – in educational institutions and education-related businesses – this struck me as very culturally specific: very West Coast US, in fact. ‘Notes Day’ just could not happen in the more common type of organisation in the UK, where ‘reviews’ and ‘professional development’ are usually greeted with cynicism and bumbled through formalistically. Here, people tend to assume that consultation by managers is always insincere, and that they’ve already made the operative decisions but are going through consultative motions. Where an ‘us and them’ mentality is entrenched into the employment culture, it would be very much harder to create a Pixar. But that is all the more reason to try to emulate this West Coast approach by incrementally trying to challenge that culture
Every organisation I’ve ever worked for in the UK has a huge way to go to emulate anything like the openness, creativity and candour of Pixar as it is depicted on these pages. But there is no reason why any business should not take up many of these approaches. For this to happen more widely, I think two conditions are necessary. One is a non-ideological management theory that takes experiences like those of Catmull as a guide to be learned from, and is based on a philosophical recognition of the practical need to avoid slipping into different types of dogma – a Middle Way based management theory, in fact. The other is training for managers that takes much more into account their need to develop as whole human beings.
Skilful management is an incredibly complex business, involving not just analytic skills, a capacity for decisive and inspiring leadership, a broad awareness of surrounding conditions, and the ability to anticipate difficulties, but also empathetic handling of employees, a balanced approach to the variety of competing priorities and values encountered, and considerable emotional stability and integration. Managers need emotional training as well as intellectual and practical skills. It has to be said that I’ve never yet met a senior manager (with the possible exception of Ed Catmull) who was clearly up to all these multifaceted demands of the job – they all had strengths in some areas and rather glaring weaknesses in others. All managers will be imperfect, but if we had a broader vision of what they do, inspired by books like Catmull’s, we could help them be much more adequate to the task.
To practise what I preach, of course, I should not merely recommend Catmull’s book, but also point out some of its limitations. The main criticism I can offer is the one I have already mentioned, that although Catmull has clearly thought out some of the philosophical basis of his approach, and is obviously capable of conveying it in a highly engaging and readable way, the opportunity to actually discuss the underlying philosophy of the Middle Way, and closely connect it to this detailed working-out in experience, is ducked. The great advantage of including some wider philosophical elements would be that it would make it far more obvious that this book merely exemplifies a wider creative process in the whole of life, not just the animations business, and not even just business in general.
At times I also found the interleaving of the practical account of creative management with the elements of autobiography and company history less than convincing. For example, the book ends with a tribute to Steve Jobs, who died in 2011 after making a major contribution to the development of Pixar as well as that of Apple. Jobs was an interesting and controversial figure, and I found the account of him engaging, but I didn’t really feel that it fitted well into a book that was, after all, not focused on eulogising individual careers, but rather giving us an account of how a creative culture could be developed. I felt that the autobiographical elements usually played a helpful role in helping the reader engage with the account of creative management, but sometimes they came to dominate the book too much and became a distraction from it.
But these are minor and probably rather debatable limitations in a book that on the whole offers a successfully integrated account of personal experience with practical advice and example. It is, as yet, the only book I have come across that could be seen as offering a Middle Way perspective on management, but I hope it will not be the last.
Robert M Ellis, May 2014