Collaboration through Candid Conversation (Book Review: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull)

by Scott Crabtree

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull is literally and figuratively an exceptional book.

I made a rare exception to my steady diet of books about science to read Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Normally I prefer science to people’s opinions based on experience (including my own), but I made an exception because many leaders at one of my favorite clients–a major video game developer–were reading the book together. I wanted to load my head with the same content as we prepared and delivered our new workshop Collaboration Through Candid Conversation


It turns out we can learn a lot from other people’s experience, especially when that experience is helping to lead not one but two of the most creative companies on the planet: Pixar and Disney. Ed Catmull–with journalist Amy Wallace–shares insightful wisdom in a way that is entertaining and memorable.

Much of the book is about candor’s role in creativity. Catmull points out that people usually use the word honesty, which is problematic. The opposite of honesty is dishonesty, and nobody wants to be dishonest. So when a company emphasizes honesty, it sometimes gets brutal and rude comments that are not constructive. Candor better emphasizes the need to be direct, without being rude.

Catmull writes “Candor is the key to collaborating effectively”. It’s a notion that is central to the book and now our new workshop, Collaboration through Candid Conversation.

Candor can lead to conflict, which can be scary; many of us view conflict as not just unpleasant, but unhealthy and unhelpful. I certainly felt that some of the conflict I experienced at Intel was not helpful. I’m in the happiness business, and conflict did not make me happy!

A key step for me, for the game developers I was presenting to, and for anyone who wants to be creative, is to recognize the value in conflict. Conflict can be useful. The first clue to how it can be useful is in the subtitle of the book: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Candor surfaces issues. Catmull writes “If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” Because conflict makes problems perceptible so they can be addressed, Catmull–and we at Happy Brain Science in our workshop–urge people to find the value in conflict.

“It is management’s job to help figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy–as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run.”–Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.

Once you recognize the value in candor, and even conflict, the next step is to be effective and candid at the same time. One key is to challenge behaviors and ideas, not people. Catmull writes “This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

While candidly communicating about ideas, it’s key to communicate compellingly.

“Instead of saying, ‘The writing in this scene isn’t good enough’, you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting those lines?’ It’s more of a challenge.”–Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.

(Ed Catmull, image from Wikipedia)

When candid conversation leads to true collaboration, it’s because all sides are willing to go beyond just asserting their views and into cooperating with others. Both parties must be willing to learn, flex, and even change their mind.

“For many people, changing course is also a sign of weakness, tantamount to admitting that you don’t know what you are doing. This strikes me as particularly bizarre—personally, I think the person who can’t change his or her mind is dangerous. Steve Jobs was known for changing his mind instantly in the light of new facts, and I don’t know anyone who thought he was weak.”—Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.

The book covers far more than candor and conflict. The notion that mistakes are not only acceptable but valuable is central to the book.

“We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. 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). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.”–Ed Catmull

Essentially, Creativity, Inc. is about how to get the best from people. We believe that getting the best from ourselves and our colleagues is what Happy Brain Science is all about! Our latest mission statement is “We help people improve their lives by applying the science of thriving at work.”

“Managers of creative companies must never forget to ask themselves: ‘how do we tap the brainpower of our people?’” — Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

One good way to start tapping the brainpower of your creative people is to focus on candor, and start reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True InspirationAnd of course if you want to discuss how we might help you get the best from your people through workshops, coaching, or consulting, please contact us.

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.

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