Disney’s Duncan Wardle Talks Creative Super Powers
If two powerful abilities would rule the future, it will be innovation and intuition. Duncan Wardle, Disney’s former Head of Innovation and Creativity, takes us into the world of innovative thinking and how to return to the expansive lens of our childhood. After 25 years at Disney, he has learned not only how to escape our routinized rivers of thinking but also how to move into a more creative and intuitive place. Discover your potential to drive innovation and find new ways forward as leaders in a fast-changing landscape. On the side, find out the barriers to being more innovative and creative in a large corporate structure and the four skill sets you have to look for in employees in the next decade.
Listen to the podcast here:
Disney’s Duncan Wardle Talks Creative Super Powers
How Innovation And Intuition Rule The Future
I’m so pleased to talk to Mr. Duncan Wardle. Duncan is a former top executive at probably the most creative company in the world, The Walt Disney Company. He is also an inspiring speaker, as well as a provocative business consultant who applies his creative talents and unconventional methods to help companies and individuals get to those breakthrough ideas. Who doesn’t need that? Let me tell you a little bit about Duncan’s journey, which is quite amazing. He spent many years as a senior executive for The Walt Disney Company. In his role as Vice President of Innovation and Creativity, he founded the Creative Catalyst Team where he developed a design thinking toolkit that enables both individuals and teams to increase their capacity to innovate. Together with this team, Duncan trained over 3,000 professional and executive Disney cast members from Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, Disney Institute, Imagineering and Disney University just to name a few.
Before heading up innovation and creativity, he was Vice President of Global Public Relations and Vice President of International Marketing and Sales for the Disney Parks division. He served in London, Paris, LA, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Shanghai, which is just an incredible global resume. In 2008, he was honored with the Outstanding American Citizen Award at the White House. In 2014, he was awarded an honorable doctorate from Edinburgh Napier University. If that’s not enough, he also holds the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award presented by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. However, if I were to sum up Duncan, I would in one sentence say this. His number one passion is to unleash the magic within each individual and organization. Without further ado, please enjoy the conversation with Duncan Wardle.
Duncan, it is such a pleasure to be speaking with you and I want to say welcome.
Thank you very much.
What we typically do before we get into some of the questions and the conversation is I want to re-ground our readers about you and your history. When we first met, we started getting to know a little bit about our histories and we share this common story of being with a very large and beloved brand for most of our career. I feel like we are kindred spirits in that journey but yours, of course, with the Disney organization, which is phenomenal. Can you tell everyone a little bit about your experience and your history up until now?
It’s funny enough, I’m going back there. I’m being honored with an honorary doctorate from that university. When I was about to graduate the last semester and I was looking on the notice board to see if I’ve been chosen for the rugby team for the weekend and there was a picture of Mickey Mouse. I thought, “What’s he doing?” It was a choice. You could go along to this presentation from a group of people from America, from Disney, who was giving people a chance to interview for a job for the year to work in the UK program or it was a two-hour accounting class. As anybody who knows my financial skills would know that I took the former.
I went along and there was this presentation. This is fascinating. It was a chance to be paid to go and live in Florida for a year with a swimming pool, an outdoor pool. At the end of the presentation, we went along. You could interview for the job and it was in one of those dark, very American Idol type rooms with the judges behind the table. Do you know the table with the skirts that wrap around? This lady was already sat down. She interviewed me. Don’t forget, this is the first American person I’d ever met in my life. The interview lasted and that needs to be finished. This lady, who’s now one of my best friends, stood up.
Becky is from Texas and she’s 6’6”. I got the job. I bought a ticket for $124 one way from London to a place called Orlando, which was in Miami. I’m halfway across the Atlantic. The pilot came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that Air 2000 is going into liquidation at midnight tonight, British time and we can no longer afford the landing fees on Orlando International Airport. We will be landing in Baltimore.” I was like, “That can’t be too far from Orlando otherwise they wouldn’t choose it.” We landed, I get out of the plane, I walk outside of the airport and I was like, “Florida doesn’t look to what it would be at this time of year.”
I jumped in a taxi, I gave the chap my address and he said, “Orlando, Florida?” I was like, “Yes.” He goes, “Do you know where you are?” I was like, “Baltimore.” He goes, “Do you know where Baltimore is?” I was like, “No.” He goes, “I think it’s more that it’s going to be more than a taxi journey.” That was my welcome to America. I landed in Baltimore and then came down to Epcot, got a job there for the year. Don’t forget now there are 1,000 students between the ages of about 21 and 24 living away from home for the first time. There were a few parties along the way. That’s where I met my wife. She was a Mexican Aztec goddess. I was a lowly barman in a pub. That’s where we met, believe it or not.
I went back to London. At the time, London had sixteen people in the Disney office. Now it has this 3,500. My job, when I finally got one, I was a coffee boy extraordinaire. I used to go down to the deli to get six cappuccinos. My first job was actually Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the presence of Princess Diana, Princess of Wales. We met with our protocol officer who told us what you could and couldn’t do it. You could not approach the Princess of Wales. If she approached you, you must not extend your hand. If she extends her hand, you may touch her hands, you must not shake it. He goes, “She has to shake 50,000 hands a day.” My job was to stand at the bottom of the stairs. Roger Rabbit was going to come down the stairs. The Princess of Wales would come in along with the CV line. If she chose to come towards Roger and engage him, great. If she chose to go into the auditorium, tough. I wasn’t thinking about screwing it up because you couldn’t screw this up. In your wildest dreams, there’s nothing that could possibly go wrong.
This was the day that I found out why you have a contingency plan because I didn’t have one. A contingency plan would tell you that the average step on the stair is about the length of your foot, unless you’re a six-foot rabbit. Your feet are three times longer. With about six steps to go, Roger tripped over his own feet. He’s now hurtling directly through the air towards the head of the Princess of Wales, when two Royal Protection Officers came out of nowhere, guns drawn and took him out in midair. You can Google it. You’ll still find it. There’s this very famous photograph of Roger Rabbit lying on the floor with two guys with guns drawn and then this little British PR guy in the background, me, looking at this with total face of panic. I thought, “I’m fired obviously.” I didn’t go to the office the next day and I got a phone call from the States. They said, “Where are you? Why aren’t you in the office?” I said, “I assumed I was fired.” He goes, “No, this is exactly the publicity we need for Roger Rabbit.” I thought, “I could make a career out of this.”
For many years, I did. I did the most audacious, outrageous PR campaigns for Disney. I got to send my son’s Buzz Lightyear into space on a space shuttle. He is, in fact, the longest serving astronaut in space. He served several months on the International Space Station. He’s now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. You can go see him. I got to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool for Michael Phelps to swim down Main Street, USA at Disney. I opened parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong and God knows where else. Several years ago, I got a call from the chairman who said, “You’re the guy with all the big ideas that gets them done. You’re going to be in charge of innovation creativity,” to which my exact response was, “What is that?” He said, “I don’t know. We just need more of it. Go figure it out.” It’s like, “Thanks for the brief.”
The first thing we did, we decided to survey 5,000 people, Pixar, Lucas Films, Marvel, Disney Parks, ESPN, ABC, Disney. What were the barriers to being more innovative and creative in a giant corporate structure? None of which I think will come as a huge surprise. Time, number one, or lack thereof. Time to think. If I look at your diary for next Monday, we all know what our diaries look like. They look like the barcode at the back of the cereal. They’re completely full. We hear ourselves say, “I don’t have time to think.” That was number one. Number two, we all had a different kind of innovation, so we were heading in a different direction. Number three, we are risk-averse. I’m going to come back to that because we were driven by quarterly results. Number four, consumer insight was being used. It was only being used by the consumer insights team. Nobody else cared about the consumer.
Number five, ideas got stuck or digital killed as they move through the process. Here’s my bet. From 1910 to 2010, Ford made cars and it worked extremely well for 100 years. Driven by Wall Street, was born in 1920 but here’s what’s going to happen in the next decade is going to be the most disruptive of our lives. I think it will be the most exciting and the most terrifying, which is why it’s going to be the most exciting. You’ve got Artificial Intelligence scheduled to be thousands of times more intelligent than the human race by 2030. You’ve got copied legacy brands trying to move from being a product-centric, “We build it. They will come,” culture to a consumer-centric one, but they’re being run by people who remember the good old days of product-centric, “We build it. They will come.” They’re closer to their retirement, their pensions and their shares, so do they really care about taking the risk? I’m not insensitive to take a risk.Purpose is more important than profit. Click To Tweet
You’ve got Bitcoin coming, we’ve got so much to know. Here’s the other one that’s coming that I think actually will outweigh all of them personally. A generation who care more about purpose than profit. For companies who continue to believe portly results are more important than purpose, I believe irrespective of how big you are, that will make it easier for you to fall down. You’ll be covered in processes. Here’s why. Not only would they don’t buy your products and services if they don’t believe in what you stand for, but they also don’t want to work for you either. I’ve got a couple of multinationals who just asked for help because they realized why does this generation, why do they all want to be an entrepreneur? They grew up as children through 9/11 and the mortgage crisis. They watched their moms, dads, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters get laid off. They don’t trust big corporations. Trust is a huge issue. I’ll give you a very tangible example of why purpose is more important than profit personally. I understand why profit was more important for the last 100 years. I get it but it won’t be.
I was asked to give a talk to the world’s number one tool company. They make more hammers, chisels and saws than anybody else. They’re the biggest brand in the world, the most reputed brand in the world. I thought, “How could I learn more about that industry?” I am not the DIY type of guy to change the light bulb several years ago, fell off a ladder doing it. I went down to Home Depot and Lowe’s and I hung out in the aisle. I just watched the consumer at the point of purchase and I listened. I went back to talk to them. I said, “Generation Z, not only do they not know who you are, they’ve never heard of your brand, nor do they actually care. They’re not even talking about your products, your hammer, your chisel or your saw.” They’re not even talking about the price point $13.95 or $14.25. What they’re talking about is what’s important to them. “We’re going to build our dream house, our dream living room, our dream kitchen.”
I said, “If you choose to create a purpose, it helps people build their dreams.” What a noble purpose for a tool company. You should own Habitat for Humanity tomorrow. I said, “That’s not the point.” I said, “You could own 3D printing. That will be the tool of the future.” I said, “Here’s the point. If you’re the brand who can help people grow their dreams, what other lines of business could you get into, in the future and evolve out of the industry that you’re in?”
They’re maniacally focused on the quarterly results their definition of innovation is interaction. We’re going to expand into Mexico and India because we believe the growing middle class will need our tools. Wrong, the middle class in India will bypass your tools just as they bypassed computers and went straight to mobile phones. Why? 3D printing. We’re printing houses in Houston, Texas now on a 3D printer. They’re printing hearts in Hyderabad, India for the surgeons to look at before they go in and operate now. I have a bet. It’s only a bet, but you and I didn’t have one of these several years ago.
I’m starting to think it was better when I didn’t have one because it’s just so much.
Go forward another several year. I put it to you that somewhere between ten and fifteen years from now, Amazon spent billions of dollars on shipping in 2018. If you can print it at home, I won’t have to ship it, I won’t have to store it. Actually, I won’t even have to make it. Think of the money I could save. I put it to you that certainly within ten to fifteen years from now, a minimum of 30% of what you buy on Amazon and have mailed to your house, you will print at home. A book, you print it at home. A small coffee table, you print it at home. A chair, your print it at home. You get a table, you might have to go to your local printer.
Anything you want on demand, several years from now. What would you be making with your hammer, your chisel and your saw? They will be next to my son’s Buzz Lightyear in the Washington Smithsonian Museum. I promise you that. They’re maniacally focused on the quarterly results, they can’t see what’s coming. If they had a purpose where the brand which helps people build their dreams, think of all the other industries they could get into they’re not into now. They’ve been so successful, “We build it, they will come,” for the last 100 years, that’s probably the biggest threat alongside Artificial Intelligence.
I’m not scared of Artificial Intelligence for two reasons. One is we’re all born creative. When you were a little girl, you used to play with a box, you got inside the box, it was your kitchen, your port, your castle, your rocket ship and then it got a bit ratty and mommy threw it away and you cried. When you were a child, you used to ask why. That’s how children learn. You go to school, you get a job and you’re told there’s only one right answer, so you stop looking for the second one. Here’s the thing, if you ask somebody, “Why do you go to Disney parks?” They’ll tell you initially, “I go for the ride.” That tells you to spend millions of dollars on capital new investment. If you paused for a moment and acted like a child and asked why again, “I like Small World.” “Why do you like Small World?” “I used to go with my mom.” “Why is that important to you?” “I take my daughter now.” What that person has just told you on the fourth or fifth why is the insight for innovation. It’s not the first one. It’s the fourth or fifth one. They told you it’s not about capital investment and tool. It’s all about their memory and nostalgia. That’s communication comfort.
Something we share with Disney and Coke is that when you meet people, everyone has their Disney story or their Coke story. It’s definitely about this experience that you’re selling. It’s interesting as you were talking about your origin and where you began, I grew up not too far from Orlando, and so Disney World was a core part of my childhood. I remember my grandfather. He was fascinated by the innovation going on at Disney, probably the exact same time that you were thinking about what you want to do with your life. He was fascinated by when you go through Pirates of the Caribbean, you’re going to notice the hairs on the legs of the mannequins and you’re going to notice the detail and all the things that go into that. Everything that you just said, Duncan, there’s so much.
I want to unpack some of it even a little bit deeper because the people reading are going to come from different places. Some of them will be our CMOs in our community who are trying to figure out how to lead that innovation, brand marketing voice for them. Other folks are in sales and marketing in general and are trying to figure out how to deliver the most amazing experience to consumers. When you talk about AI, this busyness, this task list and how we have to keep up with generational shifting, it’s overwhelming. If I’m thinking about this, I’m exhausted. I need to go get a margarita and take a break because I don’t even know what to do next. What would you say to our leaders about, “There’s overwhelming change. Several years ago, we didn’t have a phone and everything’s going to be printed at home in the next several.” How does a leader frame that up to be able to navigate that future?
Hire An Innovation Consultant
People say, “Why would you leave Disney? You were head of innovation creativity. Are you nuts?” There’s a massive gap in the market. How do I know? I tried the other three models. Everybody now needs innovation. We wanted it a few years ago. Super trendy. Let’s have an innovation team. Now they need it because it’s about survival. It’s not about growth for a lot of people now. Here’s the thing. Model A, they can hire an innovation consultant. I know that can work to a certain extent. They will come in, run a project for a few months, they make a recommendation and they leave. Have you changed the culture? No, you haven’t.
Create An Innovation Department
Model two, let’s create an innovation department. How do I know? I was head of it. To a certain extent you can act as a catalyst for change, but if you are in charge of a team of 30, 40 people and your organization is hundreds of thousands, you’re kidding yourself. If you’re creating, think you’re creating cultural change.
Create An Accelerated Model
Option three, let’s create an accelerated model that can work very well in terms of bringing products and services to market much quicker than the traditional method. Here’s what I found from all of them. None of them changed our culture. I thought, “What’s missing?” Here’s what’s missing. Our CEOs are standing up on their platforms saying, “We need you to be more innovative. We need you to take risks. We need you to be brave.” The employees are sitting there saying, “How about you tell us how?” Nobody’s doing the how part. I thought, “What if I just created the world’s simplest innovation toolkit that makes creativity tangible, innovation easy and the process fun?” A lot of companies hate the word fun because they think it doesn’t deliver business results. Of course, it brings business result. If you want Fred and Sally who worked for you for a year, ten years or twenty years to use this toolkit when you’re not around, then you better make it fun. I don’t mean hysterically fun, but enjoyable to use. They’ve got to want to use it. You can’t change a culture unless Fred and Sally choose to do it for themselves.
What is it about us, Duncan, too that as adults we feel like there’s this level of seriousness at work? As if we’re having fun, we’re missing that element of play that is at the heart of creativity and I know you talk a lot about that.
Close your eyes. This is a word association game. Where are you usually and what are you doing when you get your best ideas?We’re all born creative. Click To Tweet
I’m probably walking the dog, I’m in yoga class or something like that.
People will hear themselves say shower, walking the dog, jogging, commuting, waking up, falling asleep, drinking a glass of wine. Anything except the words, “At work.” That’s not good because we’re paid to have big ideas or work. You described to somebody that you’re so angry. That big argument, “I hate you, Fred, I’m never going to work with you again.” You’re still mad at the office. You’re so angry at Fred, you’ll never work with him again. You go over to Starbucks, you get a cappuccino, you begin to relax and what popped into your head five minutes after the argument is over? The killer one line. That one perfect put down that you and I both know we could write volumes and volumes of perfect one-liners we’ve never delivered. Why? It’s because your brain in the argument is very busy and it finds itself defending yourself. Your brain in the office is doing emails, meetings, presentations, talking to somebody and we hear ourselves say, “I don’t have time to think. When I don’t have time to think, I can’t come up with that killer one-liner, but I can the moment I step out. I can’t come up with that big idea, but the moment I stepped in the shower, I can.” Why? 87% of our brain is subconscious. Only 13% is conscious.
We’re actually only working with 13% capacity and all this material are back here. Every industry you’ve ever worked on, every challenge you’ve ever worked on, every meal you’ve ever eaten, every person you’ve ever met, every place is all back there waiting to help you solve the chat. When that door between your conscious and subconscious brain is firmly closed, you can’t access it. I don’t expect people to be playful every minute of every day. It would be great fun, but we wouldn’t get any work done. I run energizer and they are just a fun exercise. They last two or three minutes. All I’m listening for is laughter. The moment I hear laughter in the room, I know that I’ve opened that door between your conscious and subconscious brain just wide enough that you can still make informed decisions, but you can still have a big idea. I believe in playfulness a lot.
What is it that stops us? I cannot tell you how many times on this show we have gotten into the exact same conversation with different people around this idea of space for creativity. That this tyranny of lists and busyness is completely closing off our ability to be open, free, nimbler and how we’re thinking but it’s a problem. Emails alone, meeting cultures, we’ve had to actually separate certain days at our company where we’re like, “Don’t have any meetings.” We need wide spaces because of people just over schedule themselves. This is not new, but we keep doing it. How do we break free from that paradigm?
A couple of companies on it. Google is not an unsuccessful company, but they have a policy called 20% time, which they give to their engineers, which allows them time to think. They will give them Gmail, Google Goggles, Google Maps and self-driving cars. Maybe the return on investment didn’t suck. The Steve Jobs, between Apple I and Apple II when Steve left Apple the first time, he came and founded Pixar with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. He created a campus specifically designed around unplanned collaboration with lots of little nooks and crannies and places for people who wouldn’t normally meet to meet, to have a conversation they weren’t supposed to have to spark a new idea. If you actually go to Apple Park, which he helped design, I made a mistake with calling at the giant bagel when I was there. It didn’t go down that well. I see the giant spaceship. Inside that, it houses 13,000 people, but right in the middle are beautiful parks, skateboard parks, outside areas to sit, places to come and have time to think together with other people. Steve would go. You’d often find him on campus going for a walk. What did Walt Disney do? Went for a walk.
Whenever they wanted time to think, they got up and went for a walk. In fact, they held most of their meetings going for a walk. I think partially it’s about clear signaling to people when you ask what children are good at, we say imagination, play, curiosity, bravery, collaboration. When we ask what we’re really good at, strategy, critical thinking, planning, finance, accounting, logistics. Children think very expansively. When we go to school and we get a job and more and more experience and expertise we get, the more productively we think, the more instantly somebody comes at us with a new idea.
We constantly go, “No, because that one won’t get past legal. No, because it’s not a strategic plan for it. We tried that last year,” because all your experience and expertise tell you this won’t work. What I do is I very clearly signal to people and say, “We’re an expensive session now. We are not green housing the idea together. We aren’t greenlighting the idea for execution, which is green housing it together.” Pixar has as a plus in meeting. Everybody knows when they’re not in plus in meeting at Pixar. Do you watch American Idol?
What did Randy, Paula and Simon use to sit behind?
What were Randy, Paula and Simon?
They were the judges.
The moment you put somebody on the other side of a physical object to you, I promise you they will think reductively. Be careful about your choice of words. If you say to somebody, “We’re scheduling a presentation for next Tuesday,” they’re automatically going to think reductively and they haven’t got in the door yet. If you ask them, “What do you think they will think reductively,” if you said, “Could you help me think about this a different way? Could you help me build on this idea?” You’ll finally think expansively. Here’s one of the biggest tricks people could try, and you’ll think I’m insane to begin with and that’s fine. There’s a fine line between madness and genius and I will accept gladly that I’m certainly in the mad category.
Here’s the thing. Try this presentation twice. Do it the same way you’ve always done it. You stand at the front of them with your clicker, your digital presentation, leave people behind the table and recall their feedback. Try it on your friends. Take that same presentation and stick it around the wall of the boardroom. Invite that person to come for a walk with you. Cover your final recommendation. We know they read ahead. Go for a walk. Start in one corner with the objectives, the success criteria, the consumer insights. Come walk around to your final recommendation. When you walk with somebody, a presentation turns into a conversation.When that door between your conscious and subconscious brain is firmly closed, you can't access it. Click To Tweet
One of the things that I’ve talked to my boys about is they get very nervous about presentations and they go, “I’m stressed, I’m anxious.” I said, “Maybe you’re excited. It’s the same feeling as being anxious. Let’s reframe how you’re thinking about it.” There’s something I want to go back to that I am so passionate about. The unplanned collisions, like running into each other and structuring things in a certain way in the 20% time. What do you do? This is something that’s been on my mind. It’s one thing if you work at a corporate headquarters where you have thousands of people, or if you have the ability even to choose the design of your office so that you have that built in. I think it’s very important and it’s very powerful.
For many of us, we either don’t have that ability and maybe we worked in offices at that aren’t set up that way or more so we’re totally virtual. There are a lot of people within our field organization that Coca-Cola, that some of them work in home offices and they’re at home with their computer and everything is virtual. They’re on conference calls all day. They’re on Skype. They’re doing things through virtual means and they’re not bumping into each other. There are no accidental collisions that are happening. How in this virtual world where people are having fewer meetings do we recreate some of this? I think it’s a challenge.
Even those of you live in freshness. Let me ask you about the importance of freshness. Let me ask you some questions. How many times have you gone to your favorite restaurant with your loved one? You probably go three or four times a year, and you get the menu and you read all of the appetizers, all about the main courses. You read the desserts, you’re listening to the specials and nothing’s changed on the menu and then you order the same thing.
A lot. Sometimes I’ll break out but a lot of times it’s the same.
Let me ask you a question. You have to be very honest with your readers. Do you or do you not sleep on the same side of the bed every night?
I’m going to be honest, I actually don’t. It’s probably an 80/20.
This is good. Even when we find ourselves in a hotel room, most of us will still get on the same side of the bed every night. Have you ever driven home and you look at your front door and there’s that split second when you think, “How did I get here?”
Yes or I’ll be heading somewhere with someone and we’re going to lunch and I start to drive home and I’m like, “I’m not going home yet.” I’m on autopilot.
Most of us know where the supermarket is, knows where the traffic light is. No new stimulus in, no fresh ideas out. For most of us, we commute in the same way every day. We’ll listen to the same radio station every day. We have the same weekly meeting every day. Most innovation comes from looking outside of your industry. It’s incredibly important that you get fresh stimulus into your lives. I would argue if you commute wherever you go, perhaps once a month, going to a different way to work. If you listen to the same radio station every day, listen to a different radio station tomorrow.
If you traditionally buy a particular magazine or subscribe to one, when you’re on a business trip, go into a magazine store and buy one you’d never normally buy for yourself. There are some very structured ways of doing this. BMW give their engineers a project once a year and they give them some funding, but it can’t be in the automotive industry. They took on the steam injection system and the cappuccino machine several years ago because they thought they could make it better. The underlying principles that they learned, they actually applied against the fuel injection system in a BMW M series.
Hasbro gives their employees X amount of dollars per quarter to go buy something and put it on their desk, and it can’t be a toy. It’s designed to spark a conversation that wasn’t going to happen between two people that wouldn’t normally have had it to start. One of the things we were doing, they could do it with you, anybody could do with your employees, even virtually once a month. Take the first Friday of every month and have a virtual breakfast together or brown bag breakfast and go in together. Come in from 9:00 until 10:00 AM on the first Friday every month. Do it religiously and get people to come in and talk about something they’ve seen in the marketplace not from your industry that you thought was innovative or creative in the last 30 days. No PowerPoint presentations. No, “Why is it good for the business?” Most people have got enough to do. People will just talk about what they’ve seen that they’re passionate about. You’d be amazed at the number of ideas you could tie back to that breakfast conversation.
It’s interesting when we get into development conversations with our associates. Everyone wants to develop, they have things on their list, you get to the end of the year and sometimes what’s the first thing that doesn’t happen? It’s development activities. It’s fascinating to me when sometimes we’ve tried to schedule things like the virtual breakfast and people to come back with, “I’m too busy and I have this, I’m trying to catch up and I’ve got this meeting,” and there are all these excuses about why we don’t have time to do it. My question for you is do you think it’s really a leadership narrative that says to the organization, “This is important. Putting time to this is important.” They almost feel guilty like, “I don’t have time. That seems too playful and I have all these important things to do on my list.” Is it a leadership narrative that really changes that?
When Bill Gates created Think Week with Microsoft, it’s one week a year where there are no meetings, no emails, no presentations. He said, “It’s that important. We need to do this.” Steve Jobs created walks and unplanned collaboration. I believe yes. If it doesn’t start at the top, then you won’t be successful because we are all busy because if we’re not busy, we think that we’re not valuable to the organization, and that’s why we fill our diaries because then what it is? Therefore, we must be important.
It was funny even personal time, kicking off summer we had a lot of stuff going on and I had some time where I was just sitting on the patio and I was listening to the birds. It was beautiful and I was noticing myself thinking, “You have these emails to do. You should go inside. You should go do this.” My mind started going to my task list and I had to very consciously say, “No, sit here and just think, dream or relax.” I think our culture does wear this badge of busy, productive means that I have some sense of meaning and purpose and it’s very deep-seated with us that we do this. It takes time to evolve our thinking.No new stimulus in, no fresh ideas out. Click To Tweet
Wherever I travel, and I travel a lot. I’ll be in Sydney and San Francisco. I will pick something that I’ve never seen in San Francisco or Sydney. It could be tiny, it could be a cafe, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just go and spend time there. I give myself time to think. One of my favorite phrases is, “No new stimulus in, no fresh ideas out.”
There’s no question about it. When you think about how routinized we are as humans, how we drive to work and to sleep on the same side of the bed, it becomes so automatic and our days pass. When I think about some of the greatest growth I’ve had in my career, it’s been two dynamics. One has been when I’ve been put into a new job or a new assignment that has forced me out of my comfort zone. The other is when I do get away from my norm, whether it’s an innovative conference, whether it’s time doing this show. One of the best things about it is I get out of my normal conversations into a whole variety of conversations that help my creative thinking. Without those dynamics, you just get stuck in the day-to-day. Your thoughts about that?
Here’s another way to get fresh thinking into your lives. We’re going to try and demonstrate it. Do you have a pen on a piece of paper somewhere? I’m going to name an object and I’m going to give you seven seconds to draw it. I would like you to draw a house. I have some questions. Why did you put the door in the middle of the first floor?
I didn’t. I cheated. I saw your TED Talk on this, so I already knew the answer. Please tell our readers. Find out what we typically draw.
Most of us are going to draw the door on the ground floor. We’re going to draw two windows with bars over them and the roof will be a triangle. I was asked to design a new retail dining and entertainment complex for Hong Kong Disneyland. I was given twelve white, male, over 50 American architects. That’s called group thing. I also invited into the room one lady. She was a chef, she was Chinese, she was under 30. She was a chef, not an architect. I gave them seven seconds to draw a house. I pretty much knew what I was going to get. Every one of them without exception drew the house the same way we just described it, except her. She did dim sum architecture, which if you’ve never seen that before, it’s that round bamboo dish that your dim sum will come in, with a prawn ball or pork ball, a little Chinese lady waving out the window. We realized we stayed in our river of thinking, and I’ll come back to the river of thinking and the expertise of what we all like because this is what a house looks like. She gave us permission to get out of our river of thinking and think differently.
If anybody could consider audacious architecture, it will be Disney. On the way out of the door, somebody slides a photo of their picture that simply said Distinctly Disney, authentic in Chinese dim sum architecture. A few years later, the strategic brand position for the Shanghai Disney resort became distinctly Disney authentic Chinese. These people, I call them naive experts. I invite them into every session I run. They only have one success criteria. They do not work for me, they do not work in my industry. Their role is extraordinary. That will be a very unfair expectation. Their role is to try out a silly question or the embarrassing question that we’re all too embarrassed to ask in front of our peers. Their role is to try out the audacious idea, unconstrained by a turf, hierarchy and processes. I created three or four lateral thinking tools that help get you out of that river of thinking differently, such as the naïve experts.
Duncan, you’ve worked with a lot of organizations since you left Disney. You’ve taken all that you learned there and you’ve brought them into this narrative that we’ve been talking about. Can you share some maybe success stories of some of the things that you think have worked and taken especially some of the larger organizations, which is a challenge? We’ve got lots of processes and hierarchy to work through. What have you seen that’s worked for some of your clients to shift into a culture of innovation?
For most people, creativity is not tangible. For a certain extent it’s about making creativity tangible for people. It’s also about giving people tangible tools like you used to more and more to help shift their business and help them think differently. There are a number of tools to do it and a genius in helping get you out of your river of thinking. For most of us, how big is that? When they see their employees using these tools a week later, a month later when they’re not around, when they happen to go past their office, that to me is my greatest source of pride when people are using the tools when you’re not around. It means you’re changing the culture because they chose to use those tools. I think there are two or three things I know people have taken away, one is time. That’s a huge one. The other one is from the world of improv. We know as senior leaders, when people come into the room, we tend to think productively because we’ve got quarterly results to meet. We’ve got pressures, we’ve got numbers to meet. Simply by using the words, “Yes and,” from the world of employing, when somebody comes at you, you remind them again, “I’m not green lighting this idea for execution and I’m just green housing,” and I want you to start every response with, “Yes, and.”
What you’ll find in that conversation within less than three minutes, and I’ve done it with huge groups, is the first thing people will tell you is their idea got bigger, not smaller. The second thing they would do is tell you that they forced them to stay on the same idea, so it actually became a structured idea. The third one and the most important is it transfers the power of my idea to our idea. That, inside a big organization with a huge hierarchy, when you’re trying to get things done, never underestimate. When you catch people saying, “Yes and,” you’ll find the biggest win is transferring that power of my idea to our idea.
As you talk about the whole core of the CMO Summit community is this whole idea of connection and we want to create peer conversations across companies. How do we start thinking about the big shifts? You mentioned the generational changes, the technological changes. How would you think about the power of community? We’ve already talked about bumping into each other and that ideation, but what about across organizations? How would you think about amplifying our innovation across organizations by being a part of a community like this?
I’m a great believer that diversity is innovation. I think for the last many years, companies think about diversity in terms of political correctness and percentages. They’re wrong because what they miss is the bigger value. Diversity is innovation. What I mean by this, I don’t mean to think about it, but sometimes simplistic don’t look differently and get you out of your river of thinking. To me, I actually believe the future of innovation personally for me is open source. Companies shy away from it. They’re frightened of it because they’ll tell you it’s intellectual property rights. That’s a concern. I believe the greater concern is if somebody has a better idea than they are less valuable to the organization. Thereby lays the threats. I’ve seen accelerator programs work extraordinarily well at Disney by bringing in just huge diverse points of view.
I worked with a young lady a few years ago. You may have seen them, the superhero arms that she made these prosthetic limbs. She made Darth Vader, she made Ironman. She noticed that children would rather not wear the prosthetic limbs than actually use them because they were so ugly. You bring these people inside your organization, they’re passionate about their new piece of technology they’ve got. They’ve got this wonderful idea, but they don’t know how to build a business plan or how to scale it and to take them out. You surround them with people who do that every day and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can bring new products and services to market.
I think diversity, we’ve talked about that and several conversations as well, but even as we think about bringing people into the organization that is a part of it or as leaders communicating with other leaders, there was an old paradigm of hoarding information within your company. Obviously, there’s a competitive landscape, but I’m finding the more that we share as leaders, conceptual ideas and thinking and certainly we’re going to keep brand plans and specifics to what we’re doing with our business is confidential, but there’s tremendous ideation across organizations if we tap into peers who are trying to call for the same things we are.
We used to have big idea sessions at Disney, the big ideas that we thought, “Coca-Cola is going up these ideas,” but we never invited anybody from Coca-Cola to a meeting. We then go and present all these fantastic ideas and would sit in and go, “That’s not relevant to our market.” Yet you think, “Why did we do it with them?” Yes, I collaborate. All boats rise. Back to where I was talking about that where I think those skill sets of the next decade will be, in my opinion. The four things. We’re born creative. We’re all born. We played with the box. We have an amazing imagination. Intuition. You have 100 billion neurons here. You have 100 million here, but think of the decisions you and your consumers make every single day about the clothes you wear, the products and services you buy. Most of those are actually made with your second brain, not your first.Diversity is innovation. Click To Tweet
We’re all born curious. We ask, “Why am I?” I believe those four skill sets: creativity, intuition, curiosity, and imagination could well be the strongest skill sets, the most employable and the things you should look for in your employees the next decade. Simply because at least in the foreseeable future they can’t be programmed into AI. You can program the robot to paint the Mona Lisa, but she wouldn’t know what to paint unless you programmed it. I actually believe the traits that we’ve left behind on the kindergarten play floor will become far more important than the next decade because with the level of disruption that’s required, thinking different will be number one. In order to do that, you can dial up the skillsets you once had. It’s about reminding people that they have those four skill sets, but more importantly, giving them the tools to use them again.
It’s so interesting the core of what makes us human. Everything you talked about, that’s our superpower for the future as technological advances happen. It’s all these things, whether it’s our own vulnerabilities, our bravery, our flaws and our sense of imagination. That is going to be at the heart of innovation in the future.
It’s my crystal ball in the AI-type of stuff. The other reason I’m not threatened by AI is that you and I will become Artificial Intelligence. Why do I think that? I have a total titanium neck. It was broken a few years ago. It’s completely titanium. People have pacemakers, people have cataract surgery, people have plastic surgery, people have hearing aids, people have new hip replacements. People have prosthetic limbs. In our search for longer life, better health and immortality. You and I will not carry an iPhone around with us many years ago. It will be embedded in us somewhere. We, the human race, will take our superpowers, intuition, imagination, curiosity and creativity. Tech will bring the AI side. We will bring our skill sets, we will become the superhumans, I’m sure of it.
I believe as well. There’s so much research. That combination of the human element plus technology is the most powerful combination and it’s amazing. Duncan, as we close out the conversation, I have loved this because I do believe this is the future. You had just an amazing journey. Who would not want to have the experiences you listed? Many chances to innovate and to create something no one else has created. You’ve interacted with so many people over the course of your career. What’s been some of the most powerful advice or realizations that you’ve had over the time that you can leave our readers with? You’ve shared a lot of it in the conversation, but any final thoughts that you’d want to leave us with?
I actually think that for my lifetime, the 90/10 rule of the younger generation has had more to learn from the older generation from the day I was born. I think that’s turning and turning very fast.
Say more about that.
We learned from our parents, we learned from our professors. I won’t say which universities, but I’m now helping them build a curriculum around creative problem solving for their executive MBA programs. Why do I think executive MBAs will be useless in less than a few years? We’re teaching them the same way we taught them in 1967. We now have to prepare our children for jobs that don’t exist yet. Why are we teaching them history then, English literature or biology? We have to change it. I say it because I watched my children. As you know, we say insights, I just watched this generation and what they can do, how they think and what they’re capable of at such a young age blows my mind. To me, that diverse point of view and they are the consumer insights. I would argue to watch your children, watch your children’s friends, watch what they do.
For example, I am doing some work with some organizations at the moment who believe physical assets and shopping malls, sports arenas, theme parks. Are they under threat? The movie theater didn’t die when home video came along, when television came along, when DVD came along, when streaming came along so far. Here’s what’s happening. It’s not the change in technologies that change the culture. You and I used to go out to a park, a concert, a sports venue because we enjoyed the shared physical environment of lots of people jumping up and down and throwing beer over ourselves. This generation can stay at home and have the same experience because they don’t need the same shared physical bonding. They’re virtual. They can play their games online together with people from around the world in their bedroom. To look at that generation and learn from them I think is a huge lesson for all of them.
I watch my thirteen-year-old and I do realize. They do on my demand and even though it’s still a game, Pokemon Go! gets them out into the world and walk, which is a good thing. I even think about neuroscience. They’re always on two screens. They’re watching TV with another screen. I think all the studies say we cannot multitask and if we do, our IQ drops by ten points. I sometimes wonder, will this new generation actually reach a point where the brain is able to do two things at once because that is what they do? Your point about watching them and going to new places, watching what the next generation is doing, going back to what we talked about at the beginning.
I do think we live and depending on how you frame it, it could be scary and daunting the amount of change. It can be exhilarating and exciting because when you have this much change, there’s so much new possibility that could exist for all of us. What I’m taking away from you is the power of everything that makes us human. If we trust ourselves, trust that intuition, trust what we were born with, that sense of playfulness and possibility, we’re going to be just fine in navigating all this change. That’s really what I’m taking away from all of this. Any final words?
Eat more ice cream.
Thank you. That is the perfect way to end and maybe that’s what I will go do right now. Duncan, thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself.