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"What if..."

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

It’s no secret to anyone that knows me - I’m a Disney geek. Ever since I first visited Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando back in ‘94, I’ve been an avid fan of the Walt Disney Company. But it wasn’t until I returned as an adult in 2008 that the obsession really took hold. I found it unfathomable that a 28 year old man could be so enamoured with this place that had ostensibly been designed for kids. And yet, I was thrilled, filled with wonder, moved to tears and overjoyed at the turn of every corner.

I even proposed to my husband in front of Cinderella Castle as fireworks exploded overhead. Such is the power of Disney...

I’ve always been impressed at how much Disney get it right. As a teenager, I worked in a local theme park - it was run down, grotty, overgrown and unkempt. But in Disney parks, there’s barely a fallen leaf on the ground. Never a chip in the paintwork, never so much as a flower out of place. The place really is ‘magic’.

How do they do it?

I’ve just finished watching the ‘The Imagineering Story’ docu-series on Disney +, and now it all makes sense. For those that don’t know, Imagineering is a research and development team in the Walt Disney Company. For decades now, this team of creative geniuses and ‘out of box’ (more like ‘off the planet’) thinkers, adhering even to this day to Walt’s vision and mission, have been responsible for prototyping, designing and building Disney’s most innovative IP. From re-imagined cruise ships to cutting-edge entertainment technology, they are without doubt the beating heart of innovation in one of the world biggest and best-known brands.

And their secret? Failure.

I have been glued to the series for the last couple of days - I’ve justified the binge entirely as research. And it really has been. And what has intrigued me more than anything is how much autonomy and empowerment this team have always had. They have each been hired for their expertise, their talent and their drive, and then they have been more or less left to their own devices - placed in a lab with access to funds and resources, and trusted - no, ENCOURAGED - to use their talents to the furthest extent they can to create. And to fail.

You see, Imagineering is all about exploring the art of the possible - of trial and error, experimentation, dreaming and daring. It’s a place where failure isn’t just tolerated, it’s welcomed. It’s a place where the only aim is to ‘obsolete’ yourself.

And just look at what these people create.

When I listen to people like Brené Brown (clone her) talk about tolerance for failure being the key to innovation, I’m reminded of people like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Bob Iger, Bill Gates - daring dreamers who never cared about the process, only the result. It’s not the ‘how’ that matters - whether it’s the 2nd iteration or the 22nd, whether you’ve failed a hundred times to succeed only once - it’s the ‘what’. The result that you get it what matters.

I think about what lockdown has done to us - forcing many businesses into having to trust their people to work from home, only to find productivity and employee engagement skyrocket. Maybe all these people have become ‘Imagineers’ - trusted and empowered to do their job with freedom and creativity, experimenting and finding their most joyful practice. They may fail, but they do so in private, and before the manager that’s normally breathing down their neck even knows about it, they’ve rectified the issue, and learned a lesson that will likely stop it from happening again. Leaders are impressed on an hourly basis. People are stepping up, taking responsibility for their own days and their own ways. And it’s working.

Imagineers at Disney often talk about ‘the emotional connection’ - they appreciate that the sign of success to them is when their work creates a strong emotional reaction. It’s not about the bottom line, balancing the books, or even being accountable. It’s about creating a strong emotional reaction through their work. Be that with customers, colleagues, top brass or even critics.

Because they understand that if you get the emotional connection right, everything else will follow.

So they are empowered to push the boundaries. They fail in order to wow. They innovate to make themselves obsolete. And they are judged solely on their results and not their process. When it comes to empathy and empowerment, no other team on earth set the bar as high as they do.

And, my word, does it show.

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