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Reading list

June 2014

Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

“Creativity” has become a boardroom buzzword in recent years, subject of a thriving genre of books about innovation. It’s good to hear people in management talking not just about metrics and markets but also about how to be more creative in their approaches. There’s one problem with the advice being dispensed, however: it gets things completely backwards.

Part of the problem lies with skewed ideas about, well, ideas, and how they’re generated. One popular book I shall not name, for instance, recommends shutting off the cell phone and locking the door of your office. Presumably the aim is to put yourself in a space where you can press a finger to your forehead and think real hard, all by yourself.

There’s much to be said for unplugging. But lurking beneath advice of this sort is a romantic or individualistic notion—the idea that the best and most beautiful thoughts are untainted by exposure to brains other than your own.

Now comes a book that’s all about what sociologists call the “social construction of knowledge.” The author isn’t an academic—he is Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, etc.) and winner of five Academy Awards. In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House, 2014), written with Amy Wallace, Catmull doesn’t offer up cognitive exercises for enhancing creativity (like shutting off). Nor does he dwell on the individual quest for original ideas. Instead, the Pixar chief highlights what he calls “the collective.”

“Creativity,” as Catmull sees it, is people thinking together and borrowing ideas.

Significantly, the book begins with Catmull walking through Pixar’s headquarters, a former cannery near San Francisco. Catmull didn’t design the space. Onetime Pixar owner Steve Jobs did in the late 1990s, when he wanted to ratchet up the number of employees’ unplanned encounters. He created open floor plans along with an atrium that housed meeting rooms, mailboxes, the cafeteria—even bathrooms.

“Creativity,” as Catmull sees it, is people thinking together and borrowing ideas.

“Steve was a big believer in the power of accidental mingling; he knew that creativity was not a solitary endeavor,” Catmull writes (emphasis is mine). “Everything about the place was designed to encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate, to support our filmmaking by enhancing our ability to work together.”

The author devotes a chapter to Pixar’s so-called “Braintrust,” a group of animators, writers, directors, studio executives, and others who meet periodically to candidly assess every movie Pixar makes. It leverages the “collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group,” Catmull stresses. Part of the thinking is that ideas emerging from the creative process are often hardly beautiful at first—they’re what Catmull calls “ugly babies.” He believes you can’t raise those babies on your own. It takes a village—or a “mechanism”
(his word).

At the Carroll School, I’ve noticed that our students seem most creative when they’re working with one another and in groups. And I like to think of our entire school as a “Braintrust.” We are continually tapping the “collective knowledge” of faculty from a wide array of disciplines, pulling them together along with others from inside and outside the school to create a combustion engine of fast-moving ideas.