"You don't have to ask permission to take responsibility."

That's Ed Catmull, president of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios and the author of Creativity, Inc., explaining how a key tenet at Toyota influenced the way he manages his creative teams.

W. Edwards Deming, an American who introduced just-in-time manufacturing and total quality control at Toyota, had a lasting impact on Catmull's management philosophy.

Specifically, Catmull liked that responsibility for the product was distributed throughout the organization.

The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowliest person on the production line. If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to stop the assembly line.

While the "Toyota Way" has become popular management philosophy, Catmull illustrates how Pixar integrated it into every element of its company culture.

Give and receive effective feedback.

At Toyota, any employee along the assembly line could pull a cord to stop the line if he or she saw a problem that needed fixing. At Pixar, a group of creative talent, referred to as the Brain Trust, is assembled to review each film throughout the creative process. Each member is responsible for finding problems with the film.

Catmull explains this group plays an important role, as the director can often lose his or her way.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things--in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie's writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.

The Brain Trust is responsible for helping the director see problems he or she may no longer be able to see by giving notes on the film.

However, as you may have experienced, giving and receiving effective feedback is challenging. Catmull outlines the rules by which the Brain Trust operates.

A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn't clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn't make demands; it doesn't even have to include a proposed fix. ... A good note is specific.

He continues:

Any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we've experienced it ourselves.

It is this belief in empathy and shared experience that allows Pixar to focus on the idea and not on the person--to identify the flaws in the film so that problems can be addressed without attacking the creator.

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

Let's be clear. Pixar's films are not designed by committee. Each director maintains ownership of his or her movie.

Notes are given, but they are not prescriptive. Solutions discussed in Brain Trust meetings are intended only to further illustrate the problem. It is up to the director alone to determine how to move forward.

Invest in an experimental mindset.

Iterating on a story can and does take months. Catmull explains that many of his directors start to worry when a story comes too easily. Instead, a good story emerges from the creative struggle.

Catmull is well aware that this process can be draining and acknowledges the importance of maintaining the right mindset.

When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work--even when it is confounding them.

More than a mission to find what works, Catmull frames experiments as a method for learning.

Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information. If your experiment proved your initial theory wrong, better to know it sooner rather than later. Armed with new facts, you can then reframe whatever question you're asking.

It's this keen focus on learning that keeps a crew iterating and moving forward even when the end is not in sight.

Catmull acknowledges that this mindset starts from the top.

If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.

Managers, however, need to do more than just set an example; they also need to allow others to make mistakes.

Management's job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

Protect the new.

The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Catmull identifies a key challenge to sustaining innovation.

The natural impulse is to compare the early reels of our films to finished films--by which I mean to hold the new to standards only the mature can meet. Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.

Protecting the new creates space for new ideas to flourish. Few ideas are good right from the start. A good idea is born through the maturation of bad ideas. Catmull uses the analogy of an ugly baby--ugly babies with proper nurturing and care grow up to become full-fledged adults.

Encourage analogies that inspire throughout the creative process.

A common theme throughout the book is Catmull's focus on the hard work required to create the future. He takes issue with analogies that equate story writing to excavating an idea that already exists. Instead, he almost reveres the work required to invent something entirely new.

He does, however, acknowledge the use of analogies, as he's seen that each of his storytellers has developed his or her own analogy for the creative process. They range from excavating a dinosaur to driving through a dark tunnel with no end in sight until it appears.

Catmull argues that these analogies help creative talent survive the messy middle where nothing seems to be working and yet the creator must push on.

The director who has a clear internal model of what creativity is--and the discomfort it requires--finds it easier to trust that light will shine again.

Pixar's reverence for the creative process at the individual and the organizational levels is impressive. It might be easy to attribute Pixar's success to the great storytelling ability of John Lasseter or to the strong stable of directors that Pixar employs. But the progress that Disney Animation Studios has made under Catmull and Lasseter's leadership is testament to the transference of these cultural elements to another organization with great result.

So if you want to encourage a creative culture, remember to:

  • Give and receive effective feedback.
  • Invest in an experimental mindset.
  • Protect the new.
  • Encourage analogies that inspire throughout the creative process.