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The essential need for controlled creativity

Ed Catmull was one of the founders and current president of Pixar. His remarkable book Creativity Inc. plots his story from nerdy student to head of one of the 20th century’s true commercial and creative success stories.

But while the book is partly biography, at its core lies a practical dilemma: how to foster a culture of sustainable creativity within a business, while also keeping a firm eye on the bottom line.

It’s a story all brands compete with in some form or another, and it’s a question that we’ve addressed with organic ideation. Our answer, and the answer that Catmull came to, is that creativity can’t be allowed to run amok: it needs to be measured, composed and controlled.

Catmull’s early days

Catmull’s views on what makes creativity work were formed long before he started work at Pixar, and the assumptions he made in his formative years were soon proven false. In his student days at Utah, he appreciated the autonomy the tutors gave the students, believing this created a “protective, eclectic, intensely challenging environment. I felt instinctively that this kind of environment was rare and worth reaching for.”

But this was academia, and in his first role in a managerial position at the Computer Graphics Laboratory at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), he tried and failed to replicate the university experience. “I created a flat organizational structure,” he says, “because I naïvely thought that if I put together a hierarchical structure, I would have to spend too much time managing and not enough time on my own work.”

The flat structure was successful creatively — the team made some significant technological leaps in a short space of time. But the project was funded by a multi-millionaire Alex Shure, an enthusiastic investor but one more concerned with technological advancement than making profit. Brands do not have this luxury.

While Catmull was reasonably happy with the output at NYIT, he retrospectively saw the team there as working too autonomously: “independent thinkers with individual projects — rather than a team with a common goal,” as he puts it. 

This independence rarely leads to great results: successful innovation strategies make time to seek regular, structured feedback from key players, so the final outcome has wide-ranging buy-in with minimal distraction along the way.

From there, Catmull took on his most ambitious role with Lucasfilm. The team that he created there — with managers, creative leads and bosses — struck the balance he was looking for. “Experimentation was highly valued,” he explains, “but, the urgency of a for-profit enterprise was definitely in the air… we felt like we were solving problems for a reason.”

In other words, a focus on effective, speedy and profitable creativity. Ideation sessions and innovation conversations for brands too often fall into the ‘sugar spike’ category: post-it notes, ideas and shards of thought flying around the room with no real focus. Our argument is that creativity needs control, and needs a guiding hand. This ensures the whole team — both in-house and external agencies — is guiding the project to a successful conclusion.

Control can go too far

When we talk about creativity being controlled, you might read that as ‘bring everything in-house’, and there’s a definite trend towards account planning, design and branding departments being brought in-house 

While that brings with it increased creative control, it can stifle creativity too. If the innovation or branding team is too close to the brand itself, it can struggle to think objectively, and take fewer risks.

Take, for example, Uber. Its rebrand came under huge widespread criticism, described in one publication as, ‘stripped out of everything recognisable, unique, or with any personality.’  

Lack of objectivity was not the only problem. WIRED highlighted the hands-on involvement of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick. It’s natural for a CEO to want to be involved in a rebrand, and he would certainly be considered a key player. But, as WIRED rightly point out, “Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else.”

This is when control goes too far. You wouldn’t get a designer to work on the technicalities of an app, yet design is often seen as open season for all. He may have been able to judge the creative effort, but he certainly wasn’t qualified to lead it.

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to bring the right team together, have a cohesive plan and execute it with control and structure. Effective creativity isn’t a flurry of ideas thrown onto a board, nor is it a dictatorial remit from a CEO. Creativity works best with a talented team, or group of teams, with a clear idea of concept, allowed the freedom to execute against it.

At the top of this sits the creative lead: someone to orchestrate the project, someone to push the idea forward, and someone to make sure the work is harmonious. As Catmull says: “The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative—whatever form that creativity takes—and that to encourage such development is a noble thing.”

He’s talking about Pixar as a whole – but he could just as easily be talking about creative meetings.


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