Lights, Camera, Action: What CEOs can Learn from the World of Film

Early on, every Pixar film "sucks", Ed Catmall, president of the animation studio once famously said. The important thing is getting it from "suck" to "not suck", he added, by taking ideas through a refinement process that can involve directors offering each other critical yet constructive feedback. There is a lot CEOs can learn from that message.

gettyimages-578567408-compressorConsider Amy Whitaker, who was partly inspired by Catmall’s approach to making blockbuster films when she wrote her new book, Art Thinking, which offers advice to leaders attempting to foster creativity.

Whitaker has a fairly unique background, melding together a Masters in Business Administration with a Masters in Fine Art. Her book attempts to combine ideas from both worlds to help CEOs cope with the constant risk of market disruption.

“Creativity has a reputation as loose, open-ended, and kind of head in the clouds,” Whitaker told the Yale School of Management in an interview. “But it’s possible to be really rigorous about the creative process.”

“CEOs must be aware that the creative process can’t always be efficient in a business sense. There needs to be room for failure.”

Three role-players
She singles out the Pixar president’s critical “colleague-friend” as one of three role-players that can help tease out ideas during creative sessions with staff.

“They offer candor, they can talk about details of the craft, and there’s a mutual respect, even if it’s not necessarily a friendship as it’s traditionally construed,” she said.

Another role necessary in the creative process is that of the guide: someone who can bring out the team’s talents and ideas, but isn’t a guru trying to weld people to their own viewpoint. “Being a guide is actually extremely hard. It takes a lot of invisible work,” she said.

Finally, like in films, there needs to be a producer. This is the person who determines whether all the great ideas will be economically viable out in the real world.

More broadly, however, Whitaker argues that CEOs must be aware that the creative process can’t always be efficient in a business sense. There needs to be room for failure.

To mitigate that risk, she recommends CEOs take a leaf out of the investment management industry’s book. Fund managers often allocate a small part of their portfolios, say 10%, to higher-risk alternative products. Business leaders could also take this portfolio approach, by allocating a set proportion of time and resources strictly to creative work.

And they’ll need to be patient. Whitaker points out that Sara Blakely, for example, had to keep her job selling fax machines for a year after she founded successful intimate apparel company Spanx.


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