Walt Disney’s Method of Optimizing Success Through Failure

Walt Disney’s Persephone: The Goddess of Spring

Looking back at the long and varied career of Walt Disney, it seems that almost everything he touched – from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse to Disneyland and Florida’s Walt Disney World – resulted in success.

Walt Disney surely had the golden touch.

The truth isn’t quite as kind. Walt wasn’t always right and his ideas weren’t always successful.

But Walt Disney was curious and honest, and therefore also committed to recognizing and assessing his own failures and learning from his mistakes. “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles have strengthened me,” he said.

The only way to turn adversity into an advantage is to reflect on the causes of failures and learn from them.

Walt saw his early failures as humbling, character-building lessons. He liked to reminisce and to remind people that his business kingdom had all started with a mouse. But Walt’s business career as a maker of silent films started long before the 1928 creation of Mickey Mouse, by which time he and his studio team had already created more than 100 movies.

His most notable early business failure was the 1923 bankruptcy of Laugh-O-grams Films, Inc., in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was president and chairman.

Walt didn’t fail and then move on. He took personal responsibility for his failures, contemplating why they occurred and how to prevent their reoccurrence. He was a problem-solver, not a finger-pointer.

Walt looked upon failure as a natural ingredient of a lifelong learning process; as a valuable way to gain real-life experience and wisdom. Discovery through failure allowed him to be better prepared to boldly move forward in the setting of new goals and pursuit of new dreams. As an admirer of Thomas Edison, perhaps he was following Edison’s dictum that “Failure is the most important ingredient for success.”

Those early years of Walt’s silent filmmaking career in Kansas City and Hollywood served as the training ground to support Walt’s entrepreneurial education and later breakthroughs and refinement of his management talents and no-holds-barred creative capabilities. The trajectory of his career advanced as he built on his previous experience and knowledge.

It was common for Walt to structure work assignments or specific courses of action as an experiment or test, in order to learn through failure. Walt would frequently initiate a plan of action and try something so he could learn from the results, advance his thinking, and then try again, taking corrective action based on his new knowledge. One example is the animating of Persephone in the 1934 Silly Symphony cartoon The Goddess of Spring by the studio’s best animators to determine whether they were sufficiently skilled to take on the challenges of animating Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Walt was also known to assign the same development task to multiple people or groups in isolation and send them off to solve a problem or develop a storyline as a way to gather diverse ideas for comparison, knowing that he would dispose of all or some of the work in the process of discovery and improvement.

Some workers, when they later found out that others had also been assigned to the same task, were prone to anger and resentment, feeling that their time was wasted. From Walt’s perspective, however, it was time and money well spent. By studying different options and analyzing what he liked and didn’t like, he was able to leverage his imagination and creativity to identify a better path forward. In this way, tripping and stubbing toes along the pathway toward his goals helped Walt to better understand what he wanted and focus his sights more clearly on the final destination.

Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group, and author of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017). This article is an adapted excerpt from the book, available in print and Kindle editions from amazon. Visit www.BarryLinetsky.com. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

© 2017, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

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