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Can You Lead Creativity?

Buzz by Thomas Hawk In the October 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review,  Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire collaborated on an article titled Creativity and the Role of the Leader – Your organization could use a bigger dose of creativity. Here’s what to do about it. (free content) in which they recount the results of a two-day colloquium at Harvard Business School where nearly 100 “business leaders from companies whose success depends on creativity—such as design consultancy IDEO, technology innovator E Ink, internet giant Google, and pharmaceutical leader Novartis” were invited to share their ideas and experiences in leading/managing the creative process.

HBR also set up a blog at where they hope readers will “join the conversation with the authors about managing the challenges of creativity.”

The colloquium at Harvard Business School certainly had some leading lights in the field of creativity including a number of esteemed Harvard professors. Overall the article is interesting; however, it falls a little short of expectations from such a significant gathering of thinkers. Additionally, the blog really hasn’t generated the conversation that social media is so perfect at facilitating. As of this post, there was one post by Ms. Amabile on September 25, 2008 and fourteen (14) comments by fourteen (14) individuals with no further responses from the article authors. No conversation yet.

Anyone interested in learning about how to effectively lead creativity would be better served to read a September 2008 Harvard Business Review article by Ed Catmull titled How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity (executive summary = free content / full article = subscription required). Surprisingly, neither the Creativity and the Role of the Leader article or blog reference this article.

Ed Catmull was a cofounder of Pixar and  is the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Also not surprisingly, he’s also a very effective storyteller. This article does a great job of explaining how Pixar utilizes a peer driven process for solving problems and producing award winning computer animated films like Toy Story; A Bugs Life; Toy Story 2; Monsters, Inc; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Cars; Ratatouille; and WALL-E.

First of all, Catmull’s insights are valuable for leaders in all organizations, not just creative ones.

Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.

To Photo Booth and Beyond!

Catmull echoes Good to Great’s Jim Collins’ philosophy of getting “the right people on the bus” when he recalls some challenges with Toy Story 2:

My conviction that smart people are more important than good ideas probably isn’t surprising. I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside amazing people in places that pioneered computer graphics.

Toy Story 2 was great and became a critical and commercial success—and it was the defining moment for Pixar. It taught us an important lesson about the primacy of people over ideas: If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.

Regarding the creative leadership exercised by a successful film director:

What does it take for a director to be a successful leader in this environment? Of course, our directors have to be masters at knowing how to tell a story that will translate into the medium of film. This means that they must have a unifying vision—one that will give coherence to the thousands of ideas that go into a movie—and they must be able to turn that vision into clear directives that the staff can implement. They must set people up for success by giving them all the information they need to do the job right without telling them how to do it. Each person on a film should be given creative ownership of even the smallest task.

Good directors not only possess strong analytical skills themselves but also can harness the analytical power and life experiences of their staff members. They are superb listeners and strive to understand the thinking behind every suggestion. They appreciate all contributions, regardless of where or from whom they originate, and use the best ones.

Again, good advice for all leaders.

Catmull outlines Pixar’s Operating Principles:

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.
  2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.
  3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.

Harvard Ideacast offers an interesting interview with Catmull which you can listen to here.

Finally, on  August 19, 2008 Steve Prokesch wrote a post titled Pixar’s Collective Genius for the HBR Editors Blog where he shares some insights on Ed Catmull’s exceptional leadership.  In contrast to the Creativity and the Role of the Leader blog post both Mr. Catmull and editor Prokesch have joined the conversation with comments in response to readers’ questions.

The entire article is a great read for all students of leadership and is just one of many each month that makes the Harvard Business Review worth the subscription.

Fast Company’s October 2008 issue is also themed Masters of Design – Build Your Creative Capital. I’ve previously written about the new leadership at the Rhode Island School of Design (John Maeda – Drawing new pictures for art and design education) and will be sharing some of the other great ideas in this issue shortly.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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