What it Takes to Bring Something New to the World


Pixar Ratatouille

“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

[Albert Einstein]

When we look at the genesis of a company and even an entire industry, we find an idea and someone who was willing to stick it out to make it happen. Starting something new is exciting. A new idea is free from the shackles of reality. We imagine what should be and we may see the distance between it and what is deceivingly short.

That is good, we would hardly be where we are if we didn't open our mind to opportunity and the door of our imagination. We want to challenge limiting frames. But the more difficult part is to make the idea happen. Our vision is often a product of our taste and it is much easier to develop good taste than it is to create great products from it. 

There is a reason why sticking it out is harder than it seems.

What it takes to make an idea happen doesn't challenge only existing limiting frames in generalit challenges us in the process. Which is why be soon become conflicted about our sanity and rife with self doubt. It takes time to get any good at anything and we are the least patient with ourselves.

Further, when we identify too closely with our work, we miss the role of a crucial ally in helping us shape our idea into realitycreativity. Sir Ken Robinson's definition of creativity sheds some light, “creativity is a process of having original ideas that have value.” It's a process, and not an event. It's a step away from imagination, and we can learn how to do it.

Says Robinson:

Imagination can be an entirely private process of internal consciousness. […] Private imaginings may have no outcomes n the world at all. Creativity does. Being creative involves doing something.

[…] To call someone creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something: in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever.

Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination.

Ed Catmull knows this process well. The president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios began studying computer science at the University of Utah in 1965. In 1972, he created a four-minute film of computer-generated animation that represented the state of the art at the time. Good thing we did not have Pixar to compare it to then.

In Creativity, Inc. Catmull talks about the challenge of stimulating creativity while keeping up with the breakneck pace of the digital age, and the many times when because of the disparity between what should and could be and what was, where they were in the process, trading imagination for a safe bet was tempting:

Originality is fragile. And in its first moments, it's often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock ups of our films "ugly babies." They are not beautiful miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be.

As a leader, Catmull had a very important and delicate role in helping people along that process. On one hand, uphold the vision for what could be, which was sorely needed to create confidence; on the other, remind people to stay open to careful, systematic introspection, the fuel to generate constant improvement so they could do the work to close the gap between where they were and what could be—between taste and creation.

Negotiating the tension between the desire for certainty and the discomfort for confusion is where vision and reality meet. Visionaries become great leaders when they internalize what it takes to navigate the fine line between chaos and clarity to birth a new idea without letting the team fail by releasing too soon or too late. As things need to move along, this is the hardest thing to communicate.

This is where the “trust the process” and “do the work” is one the most advanced types of conversations we have—with each other and within ourselves. It is crucial we get this right to bring something new to the world.

Says Catmull, from the outside, as well as the people involved in the work, may look at the process and say, “you know, if you would just get the story right—just write the script and get it right the first time, before you make the film—it will be much easier and cheaper to make.”

While on the surface this is correct, it's irrelevant to bringing to life a great movie, or a great idea.  Because even when we’re really good, our first pass or guess at what the film or idea should be will only get us to “B level. If you want to get to A, then you have to make changes in response to the problems revealed in your first attempt and then the second attempt, et cetera.” 

After working with Steve Jobs for more than a quarter-century Catmull came to appreciate how he navigated the gap between what is and what could be.

It's easier to see the inner working of process looking back than forward and experience with negotiating this conversation with oneself are key. But when we practice enough, when we stay within this space long enough, we get better at making the small improvements we need to advance.

Looking back, with the benefit of perspective we see the building blocks of the person we become when we hold ourselves to that space and have the experience.

Catmull says:

Perspective is so hard to capture. I worked with Steve for more than a quarter-century— longer, I believe, than anyone else—and I saw an arc to his life that does not accord with the one-note portraits of relentless perfectionism I've read in magazines, newspapers, and even his own authorized biography.

Relentless Steve—the boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-deaf guy we first came to know—changed into a different man during the last two decades of his life. All of us who knew Steve well noticed the transformation. He became more sensitive not only to other people's feelings but also to their value as contributors in the creative process.

His experience with Pixar was part of this change. Steve aspired to create utilitarian things that also brought joy; it was his way to make the world a better place.

So we want to design personal and business culture that will help us make better those small decisions and trade-offs we need to make on the spot by doing the heavy lifting up front of what we consider core to us. Because everything else may and will need to be negotiable.

Creativity, Inc. includes the stories about the difficulties Pixar faced and worked through in its journey. Those are the instances that led to the most practice in dealing with uncertainty as the company kept strengthening its core. Catmull's special bond of friendship and collaboration with Steve Jobs helped him go beyond the surface and immediate action to observing its effects.

Values and belief in one's work, teams, and in building 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 we can draw from the difficult moment. 

Anyone who's ever started anything that became any good knows how it can take three years to make a product work. This is commitment.

The most remarkable among the many observations Catmull makes about Steve Jobs is his consistent focus on the problem itself rather than making the people the issue. And how, over time, he learned to become more articulate and observant of people's feelings… learning to read the room.

Rather than describing it as mellowing with age, or letting go as it may be, Catmull says Steve's transformation was an active one. He continued to engage; he just changed the way he went about it.

I love the core message that our actions change our reality. Our decisions have intended and unintended consequences—and they shape our future. The key is to think through the implications of this belief.