Ed Catmull on Leadership, Change, and Commitment

Ed Catmull with Kara Swisher
Ed Catmull says in Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration:

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them.

They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.

Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

It is a fine example of how belief in one's work, teams, and ultimately a culture of creativity and excellence, can lead to extraordinary things… and life.

There are many lessons in leadership, quality of thought and courage of action in the book. Can you imagine an organization that takes three years to make a product work? This is commitment.

On change, he says:

People want to hang on to things that work — stories that work, methods that work, strategies that work. You figure something out, it works, so you keep doing it — this is what an organization that is committed to  learning does. And as we become successful, our approaches are reinforced, and we become even more resistant to change.

Catmull suggests one useful way of thinking about change is to acknowledge and welcome randomness. It is inevitable and presents unforeseen opportunities to respond constructively when it presents itself.

“The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”

Companies can create an environment in which people have the opportunity to shift from the temporary experience of confusion provoked by change — with its associated self-interest trigger that prompts us to resist it — into self-awareness mode.

The way we are wired makes it difficult to deal with randomness. We instinctively look for patterns — yet, even big data should not replace thinking. Because randomness cannot be anticipated, we have no place to file it in our heads. Which means it has less impact in how we process information vs. things we can see, measure, and categorize.

We tend to attach explanations to what we experience based on data points available to us — the resulting narrative collapses potentially non causal events into a neat package.

Ignoring the things we do not see or experience causes us to miss the things that did not — yet could — happen. And this is at the root of true inspiration.

In the video highlights below, Catmull shares other words of wisdom on the art of melding technology and storytelling; the difficulties of running a hits-based business; and the thought process behind deciding when they produce a sequel. [via AllThingsD]

Culture plays a big role in overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration, including how we deal with failure. Separate yourself from your idea, says Catmull:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”


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