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Can ‘Creativity’ and ‘Corporate’ Somehow Work Hand-in-Hand?

Even notable innovator Pixar is running long on sequels and short on inspiration

I’ve been doing some binge reading lately — books about creativity and business success — but have come away feeling somewhat skeptical about their messages.

Ed Catmull’s new book, titled “Creativity, Inc.,” explains how, as the czar of Pixar, he banished “those unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.” I admire Catmull and his Pixar partner, John Lasseter, but worry that the company has lately been exhibiting a shortfall of inspiration as reflected in some rather disappointing releases; Pixar won’t even have a movie out this year.

On the other hand, I found myself initially reassured by “Think Like a Freak,” a new work by those two freakonomics proponents, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. They argue that the model for success is to go back to zero on every issue, and then “think like a child.”

Trouble is, like most economists, they like to mobilize Big Data in analyzing problems, and children, by and large, don’t grapple successfully with such things. Neither do I.

It turns out I even need Big Data to cope with comedy, as explained by a new book titled “The Humor Code.” Its authors, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, both academics, have summoned their algorithms to develop a “benign violation theory” to explain what makes audiences respond to humor. I appreciate their methodology, but don’t find the data or the algorithms amusing.

Of course, the academic who has stirred the most noise with his Big Data theories is Thomas Picketty, whose new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” sits atop global bestseller lists. Picketty’s basic thesis banishes the conventional wisdom of free-market economists, arguing that the gap between rich and poor has been expanding irrevocably, that the trickle down theory has never actually worked and that the only way to ward off revolution long-term is to invoke a global wealth tax.

To be sure, his ideas are based on an exhaustive analysis of decades of tax records from Western countries (including the U.S.) — Big Data research so vast that no academic can raise the capital to challenge Picketty’s “Capital.”

That’s why Catmull’s musings are much more tempting to consider — his product revolves around imagination, not math. His book thoughtfully traces his rise in the worlds of animation and technology, and the evolution of Pixar’s amazing successes: “Toy Story,” “Wall-E” and “Cars.” A charming but (seemingly) unspectacular film like “Finding Nemo” became a billion-dollar grosser.

Catmull’s management theories are constructive if prosaic: He distrusts corporate hierarchies, encourages employees to speak their minds, and ardently believes that creative companies can resist the forces of bureaucratic self-destruction that inevitably follow success.

That Pixar provides an interesting case study of all this is something his book does not candidly deal with. Catmull’s office, packed with toys and merchandising gizmos, reflects his own level of corporate distraction, with the exec — now the president of Disney Animation as well as the Czar of Pixar —  having become ever more significantly involved in theme parks, marketing and the overall geopolitics of the Disney empire.

Catmull and Lasseter have much to contribute in these areas, to be sure, but in becoming corporate hierarchs they’ve arguably allowed the output of Pixar itself to become corporate, slowly stamping out a  slate dominated by sequels like “Toy Story 3” or “Cars 2.” Great companies do not have be defeated by their own success, Catmull argues. But now he has to prove it.

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