Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Walt's and Three Rooms

Two of the big questions many people have about being creative are; How do you do it?, and Is there a recipe?  I'm not sure anyone has fully answered either yet. Part of the difficulty in doing so is that it's one thing to study creativity and another to practice it.  Some of the most famous designers have maintained that you can't do both; that you can study or practice creativity, but not at the same time.

I recently posted about the similarities between Imagineering and Design Thinking after studying the lives of very creative people and looking for common themes between them. That turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, not only because of the sheer volume of reading material, but also because Walt and the Imagineers and Arrow's Development's founder's didn't really talk much about their methods. Even when they did, their vocabularies were quite different. Disney spoke in the context of telling stories and making movies while Karl Bacon and Ed Morgan were speaking as engineers and ride designers and others like William Lear and Tomas Edison were speaking in the context of their specialties.

Today we're going to look at a creative method that hasn't gotten much press. I'm talking about the idea of the Three Walts or Walt's Three Rooms.

Oliver Johnston was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Ca. where his father was a professor at Stanford. "Ollie"was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men".  Many feel that the two most accomplished of the group were Ollie and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met at Stanford in the 1930s and after graduation were hired by Disney for $17 a week when the studio was expanding to produce full-length feature films.

Ollie once noted that he and Frank "were bound to be thrown together" at Stanford, since they were two of only six students in the art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for meal money. 

Ollie also commented about Walt that there were actually three of him and that you never knew which one was coming to your meeting;;
  • First was Walt the Dreamer.
  • Second was Walt the Realist.
  • Third was Walt the Critic. 
Not only were there three Walts, when ideas were being developed there were three different rooms which were used to investigate, discuss and refine them.
  • Room 1 was for brainstorming, where all ideas were presented - no naysaying allowed.
  • Room 2 was for storyboarding & sketches of potential characters for the story.
  • Room 3 was for putting the project under the microscope. 
Room 3 was called the Sweatbox and it was there that the entire project was presented, not only to the team, but to the Devil’s Advocates, the most famous one being Walt.  In these "Critic"meetings no one was personally attacked, but it was where things either became a reality or were put on hold for later, sometimes much later!

Here are some detailed descriptions of what happened in each phase and room:

DREAMER - Dreamers spin innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas, without limits or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. Dreamers ask: If I could wave a magic wand  and do anything I want – what would I create? (Pixie Dust - df) How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive? The Dream-storming in Room 1 was the space for asking "What if?" and "Why not?"

REALIST - The realist builds the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible. They try to figure out how to make the ideas work and sort them into an executable plan. To be a realist, ask: How can I make this happen? What are the main features and aspects of the idea? Can I build on ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? (Inversion, Forced Association- df) How can I use the essence of the idea to create a more realistic one?

CRITIC - The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to find flaws in them by playing the devil’s advocate. Critics, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A guest? Is it worth our time to work on this idea? This was also where Walt was when he suggested "plussing"things up.

For example; Suppose someone wanted a better way to water their garden.  The dreamer might suggest  teaching the plants how to talk, so they can tell you when they are dry. The realist develops this into an animated bird that monitors the moisture content of the soil. The realist refines the idea by exploring various sensors, hardware and software. Finally, the critic evaluates the idea for all possible flaws and problems.

Organizing these into process steps you get;

Step 1 - “WHAT are we going to do?”

Dream big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

The Room Setup: Open, airy rooms with lots of light and high-ceilings are the best for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mindset: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 - “HOW are we going to do it?”

Here the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this phase would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, (storytelling - df) and populating storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall which facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the planning process.

Mindset: This is where you roll up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Goals: Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 - “WHY are we doing this?”

Ask “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking the hard questions. Is the plan really doable? Are there unwieldy aspects that need to be cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? The process shifts from dream-storming, to subsequently practical. The environments in the various “rooms” prompt us to adopt the best mindset at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to ultimately be implemented.

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mindset: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.  In considering How, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The Why? step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider the plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting, Imagineering, and Design Thinking, go deep: they are methodical, disciplined, and time-intensive up front.

Here are some possible Disney Mascots or Characters for Walt's three rooms:

The Realist - Ludwig Von Drake is the analyst.
The Dreamer - Mickey has the vision, heart and empathy.
The Critic - Donald Duck has the eye for what's missing or just plain wrong.

Realist, Dreamer and Critic

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Making Walt Cry

Although current theories lack harmony regarding the purpose and function of crying, they agree that it comes in response to strong emotions. Scientists have even discovered that tears produced during emotional crying have a different chemical composition from other types of tears. I think you can tell a lot about a person based on what can make them cry.

Throughout his life, Walt had an expressive nature and great empathy for children. He had an attraction to the theater at an early age and developed vivid storytelling as a key element of both his personality and his craft.  Although very little has been written about what could move him to tears, what has been written is revealing;

Disney assigned bothers Richard and Robert Sherman to develop the songs for Mary Poppins. Over the course of two weeks they sketched out five pieces, but the one Walt liked the most was "Feed the Birds".  He said it would replace Brahm's Lullaby and cried every time he heard it. Another soft spot were his daughters. He cried at both of their weddings.

Coming from the generation that he did, it's significant that Walt Disney was so comfortable with emotions. He clearly understood the importance of emotional content in everything he did.

Explaining what made Disney's works different from everyone else's Walt said:

"The thing that makes us different is... Giving it "heart"...  We developed a psychological approach to everything we do here. We seem to know how to "tap the heart." Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group."

It's Mother's Day.  Give your mom a hug.

There were two other things which could bring Walt to tears; Fear of Failure and America, Abraham Lincoln in particular.

During the difficult period which led up to his first breakdown, unexpected setbacks could trigger crying spells. Clearly,  the pressures of operating with limited support and the possibility of failure were a source of deep distress.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Walt's Relationship with Money

In council with the Seven Dwarfs

During a recent visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum, I overheard one of the guests who had just finished viewing the portion of the exhibit on Mickey Mouse chuckle somewhat cynically and say; "Who'd have thought a mouse could make someone a millionaire?" 

Reflecting on his observation made me realize that the present success of Disney, with it's $140 Billion market valuation, might give some people the impression that Walt was successful from the start and mostly interested in the money.

There is no question that the availability of money made a big difference.  Walt once said that the lack of money was his biggest problem. But underneath that statement is a much deeper truth.

"Biggest problem? Well, I'd say it's been my biggest problem all my life. MONEY. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true. From the very start it was a problem. Getting the money to open Disneyland. About seventeen million it took. And we had everything mortgaged, including my personal insurance."

1950 was a turning point in Disney's financial future. Up until that time his drive to always
"plus it up" and do things which hadn't been done before had resulted in a string of financial shortfalls; near misses; being robbed a couple of times; a few break-evens and finally, after 30 years, enough of a success to nearly balance the books - or at least get the debt down to the point that Bank of America wasn't wondering what they'd gotten themselves into with this crazy Disney fellow.

That doesn't sound like the kind of rags-to-riches story that inspires many today, with some software startups getting stratospheric buyouts in a matter of a couple of years.

"Disneyland is a work of love. We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money."

Walt commented that most people didn't understand how he thought about money. For him, it wasn't something to be acquired and hoarded. It was a resource to be applied to making and improving things.

In 1956, Walt explained his attitude about money, to his daughter Diane, in this way;

"All I know about money is that I have to have it to do things.  I don't get any fun out of possessing it. On the other hand, there is no truth in the theory that I have no regard for money.  I do, but not in the way some people mean.  I think of money as tool. I don't want to bank my dividends from my Disney stock; I'd rather keep that money working."

In his book "An American Original"Bob Thomas quotes Walt a little differently:

"I've always been bored with making money, I wanted to do things, I wanted to build things. Get something going." "People look at me... some of them say; 'The guy has no regard for money.' That's not true. I have had regard for money. But I'm not like some people who worship money as something you've got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere.  I've only thought of money in one way, and that is to do something with it, you see? I don't think there is a thing that I own that I will ever get the benefit of, except through doing things with it."

When you think about it, money in and of itself, has no intrinsic value, particularly these days when it is often just a number in a few kilobytes of computer memory somewhere. It is what the money represents that creates the power.  Money is primarily the value of stored labor. Walt seemed to understand this instinctively.  Perhaps it was the result of his upbringing and all those years of working for his father, basically for his childhood room and board.

That being so, there is another principle at work here.  The need to get others to help out when the job gets too big for just one person. I suspect Walt's persuasive powers of storytelling helped out quite a bit there - and his persistent optimism. Walt didn't use Tom Sawyer's methods of selling whitewash.  Walt was sincere and committed to the idea that people were basically good and would respond to that in others.

That's part of the reason why Disneyland prospered when other theme parks failed. It was patterned after a world where there was a lot of good in everyone and everything.

Not exactly what Walt had in mind

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Four States of Warren Buffett & Walt Disney

This morning I received an item from LinkedIn's Pulse feature entitled The Four States of Warren Buffett and it felt very familiar. I'm posting an edited version of it here, for the purposes of comparing Warren with Walt. First, the commentary on Warren Buffett; (Thanks to Ankit and Akshay and the Stanford Launch class for Pulse!) 

People respond to authenticity: they need to know that a leader is everything they seem to be. They recoil from baseless bravado and overblown promise. Today all leaders are on under constant public scrutiny. 

One of the best places to see corporate brass is at their annual shareholder meetings. Some seem highly scripted and defensive affairs, with questions and answers anticipating every possible stockholder accusation or complaint. Buffett hires a stadium and conference centre for three days. He has dinner with them at his favorite restaurant. There are six hours of unscripted, no holds barred interaction. It is a positive conversation between management and shareholders. It is a celebration, rather than an interrogation. Its interaction at the most basic, human level.

When it comes to making big decisions, some leaders listen to their insticts, while others ignore it. Some even pass the tough choices to their advisers or simply pick the the lowest risk option. Warren Buffett knows how to follow his gut.  He has an instinct for value and knows that success usually comes with time, not in the moment. Over and over, he has listened to his gut instinct – informed by his vast research – to guide his business decisions. Buffett places a premium on tangible value, trusts his instincts and, with enviable patience, stays the course. 

Recruiting the right people to take with you on the journey is essential. Look for authentic, loyal people who are trustworthy and which you like being around. With staff like that, a leader can confidently empower them with responsibility and delegate the decision-making. Buffett's core team is just 24 people. He has complete trust in his operating managers to run the companies which he owns. Empowered workers with decision-making authority are the hallmarks of great leadership. It also enables you to profitably invest in your staff and give them freedom of movement they need to make their own decisions, accept the risks and deal with the outcomes of those decisions.

Real leaders are givers. For them, success is not about accumulation, it is about how you made your community a better place. How you stimulated positive views, encouraged people to be better and supported those who needed it. Warren Buffett is not about money. Whether he is lobbying President Obama to change unfair tax laws which allow him to paying 19 per cent while his staff are paying over 30, or committing 85 per cent of his fortune to support the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the essence of Warren Buffett is giving back to the community. Money is a by-product of Buffett's passion, rather than the core of his focus. 

Buffett was born August 30, 1930. Walt Disney was born December 5, 1901, in adjacent generations. Their "old fashioned" values of loyalty, decency and trust – so prevalent 100 years ago - are worth more today than ever before. Alex Malley suspects they are the true source of Warren Buffett’s wealth. I suspect that was true of Walt Disney as well.

At a time where the United States appears to live in the moment, when once it had the vision to land on the moon, it's worth considering Warren Buffett, the man, built a culture that will be his succession plan. He reminds the world that traditional values build hard working and big thinking economies.

With one minor exception about delegation, I suspect that if you went back thru this article and substituted "Walt Disney" for "Warren Buffet", the message would still ring true.

Here are some quotes from Walt on these same topics:


"I go right straight out for the adult. As I say, for the honest adult. I go for those people that retain that something, you know, no matter how old they are; that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of the world of fantasy and things like that. I go for them. I play to them."

"I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous."


"When Walt Disney was making his films, he trusted his instincts and made films for himself, but they appealed to everybody, not just kids."  -  John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering.


"I don't pose as an authority on anything at all, I follow the opinions of the ordinary people I meet, and I take pride in the close-knit teamwork within my organization."

"No one person can take credit for the success of a motion picture. It's strictly a team effort. From the time the story is written to the time the final release print comes off the printer, hundreds of people are involved — each one doing a job — each job contributing to the final product. And — if the picture wins an award, the feeling of satisfaction... can rightfully be shared by each and everyone."

"In order to make good in your chosen task, it's important to have someone you want to do it for. The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements but rather with the things we do for people we love and esteem, and whose respect we need." 

"Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards — the things we live by and teach our children — are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings."

Here is one that I hadn't seen before this morning, which I particularly like:

The important thing is the family.  If you can keep the family together — and that's the backbone of our whole business, catering to families — that's what we hope to do.