Creativity and Improvisation

Posted on 29 December 2015

I recently read the book “Creativity, Inc. – Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation (Random House, 2014).

This is a brilliant, must-read book for anyone who manages people and companies in creative industries (or anyone who wants to nurture creativity in their organisation, regardless of the industry).

Creativity Inc.
The author mentions the word “improvise” only once in the book, yet it seems to me that much of what he writes about creativity and the Pixar culture is actually about approaching things with an improvisational mindset.

Here are some examples:

  • “A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion – and ultimately doesn’t work).” (P101 in the hard-back edition)
  • “…when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is so exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed.” (P132)
  • “…we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information and are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t.” (P140)
  • “It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.” (P146)
  • “To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground upon which creativity occurs.” (P147)
  • Quoting Pete Docter, director of the film Up: “If I start on a film and right away know the structure – where it’s going, the plot – I don’t trust it. [...] I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And, by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you begin.” (P151)
  • Also quoting Pete Docter: “Some of the best ideas come out of joking around, which only comes when you (or the boss) give yourself permission to do it. […] I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.’ If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections.” (P152)
  • “In creative endeavors, we must face the unknown. But if we do so with blinders on – if we shut out reality in the interest of keeping things simple – we will not excel. The mechanisms that keep up safe from unknown threats have been hardwired into us since our ancestors were fighting off saber-toothed tigers with sticks. But when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality.” (P157-8)
  • “People who act without an approved plan should not be punished for “going rogue.” A culture that allows everyone, no matter their position, to stop the assembly line, both literally and figuratively, maximizes the creative engagement of people who want to help. In other words, we must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.” (P163)
  • “If we can agree that it’s hard, if not impossible, to get a complete picture of what is going on at any given time in any given company, it becomes even harder when you are successful. That’s because success convinces you that you are doing things the right way. There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right. [...] The better approach, I believe, is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of a company and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints. If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse. In a healthy, creative culture, the people in the trenches feel free to speak up and bring to light differing views that can help give us clarity.” (P173)
  • “While the allure of safety and predictability is strong, achieving true balance means engaging in activities whose outcome and payoffs are not yet apparent. The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.” (P183)
  • “Creativity involves missteps and imperfections. I wanted our people to get comfortable with that idea – that both the organization and its members should be willing, at times, to operate on the edge.” (P220)
  • “Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them – and, more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes us willing to try something that may fail.” (P222)
  • “…uncertainty can make us uncomfortable. We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead who-knows-where.” (P224)
  • “Lindsey Collins, a producer who has worked […] on several films, imagines herself as a chameleon who can change her colors depending on which consistency she is working with. The goal is not to be fake or curry favor but to be whatever person is needed in the moment. “In my job, sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m a follower…”, she says.” (P232)
  • “Instead of setting forth a “perfect” route to achieving future goals (and sticking to it unwaveringly), I wanted Ann to be open to readjusting along the way, to remaining flexible, to accepting that we would be making it up as we go.” (P257)
  • About some challenges Pixar faced as it got bigger, and as the pressure grew to produce successful films consistently: “How, we all wondered, could we maintain Pixar’s sense of intensity and playfulness, beating back the creeping conservatism that often accompanies success while also getting leaner and more nimble?” (P280)

Catmull also says a LOT about mistakes, risk, failure, and letting go of the fear of failure (much-debated topics in the applied improvisation community around the world):

  • “We can accept that any given idea may not work and yet minimize our fear of failure because we believe we will get there in the end.” (P81)
  • “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).” (P108)
  • “…failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders, especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.” (P109)
  • “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative.” (P111)
  • “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them. They will also see the upside of decisiveness: The time they’ve saved on not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they’ve hit a dead end and need to reboot.” (P111)
  • “It isn’t enough to pick a path – you must go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explored the neighborhood.” The key point here is that even if you decide you’re in the wrong place, there’s still time to head toward the right place. And all the thinking you’ve done that led you down that alley was not wasted.” (Pp111-2)
  • “When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.” (P113)
  • “There is an alternative approach to being wrong as fast as you can. It is the notion that if you carefully think everything through and consider all possible outcomes, you are more likely to create a lasting product. But I should caution that if you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them – if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line – well, you are deluding yourself. […] For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work – things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.” (P114)
  • “There are arenas, of course, in which a zero failure rate is essential. […] But just because “failure free” is crucial in some industries does not mean it should be a goal in all of them. When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counter-productive.” (P115)
  • “While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance. Probably more companies hit the skids for this reason than because they dared to push boundaries and take risks – and, yes, to fail. To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.” (P118)
  • “One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts. How, exactly, do you do that? [...] The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.” (Pp123-5)
  • “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason – our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” (P128)
  • “If we allow people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been de-fanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval. Mistakes will still be made, but in my experience, they are fewer and farther between and are caught at an earlier stage.” (P164)
  • “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” (P295)
  • “Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. […] Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” (P317)

What do YOU think? Do you find Catmull’s tips helpful? How do you apply the principles and mindset of improvisation in your work? Please leave a comment.

Oh, and as well as being a marketing consultant, editor and copywriter, I’m also an improv performer and an applied improvisation trainer. So contact me if you’d like help with nurturing creativity, teamwork, communication and nimble responsiveness to change in your organisation.


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