Projects and Creativity Inc.

Philosopher Jane McGonigal forged an approach to discovering epic wins and described her methodology as “sneak-up sideways” in the book SuperBetter.   She defines this approach in that happiness is more likely to be created as a by-product of meaningful goals than by trying to be happier.

The “sideways” methodology has worked in many aspects of my career and also shares similarities with writings of Ed Catmull who co-founded Pixar Animation Studios.  Catmull led Pixar to epic successes and shared his “sideways” journey in the book, Creativity Inc.  So why is a project management writer with a passion for mining talking about philosophers and a Disney studio exec who made cartoon movies?

Having been raised in Los Angeles, I am always fascinated to see how similar the movie industry is to the mining and construction industries.  Think of each movie as a project…. specialists come together, for a short period of time, to create something transformative, then move on to the next project.  That curiosity lead me to read Creativity Inc. to better understand how the entertainment industry approaches projects.  The book offers up a fascinating story about how some very smart people built something that profoundly changed the animation business.

Using the “sneak-up sideways” methodology to understand how a company like Pixar successfully executed massively epic movies may help us deliver projects better. 

Creativity Inc. is inspirational, full of lessons, leadership, how to break old habits of thinking and creative approaches to better project management.  The Disney Animation of today is MUCH different than it was 20 years ago. The transformation is a result of innovative approaches to project management and less on the technology.

One of Catmull’s management tools I found most intriguing is called a “Braintrust”: a group of creative types who would meet every few months to exchange views on how to solve issues (risks) in a film under development.  I’ve often seen a similar concept successfully used by key management walking a job site on a weekly basis to point things out to each other.

It sounds simple, but it’s not an easy concept to implement. Nobody wants to look like an idiot in front of their peers, and there’s a natural reluctance to tell the project manager (director in this case) that you think the second act sucks or the main character is unlikable. And absolute candor is exactly what Catmull required of his team in these meetings.

Mr. Catmull was a trusted advisor to George Lucas and Steve Jobs, and he was consequently handed the keys to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.  If you want to understand how to execute projects better without reading another textbook, take a “sideways” view through his lens.  It’s a must read for Pixar enthusiasts.  For fans of project management, it will certainly add value. As Catmull said, “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”

Written by John F. Gravel

Posted in Book Reviews