[Other posts in this series can be found here.]
This series of blog posts was inspired by a question from a reader inquiring how I went about organizing so much information contained in The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success so that it was “all at your fingertips when you do the first draft.”
I hope I have been able to provide some insight into the process I followed. I didn’t set about writing the book with any particular plan, but rather followed a process that seemed logical and natural, and stuck with it, always striving to move further forward, day after day, year after year, until I was satisfied that I had achieved the goal I had set for myself.
The reader, from Ontario, Canada, also made a couple of comments about how the book sparked aspects of his own thinking methodologies. He writes:
I’d like to comment on the concept of perfectionism. At the start of one chapter you mentioned that Disney was a perfectionist in the best sense. I’m glad you put it that way, because there is a sense in which perfectionism is a kind of psychological problem.
Disney had extremely high standards. But while he paid close attention to the details, he always kept the finished project in mind, and knew when enough was enough. A neurotic perfectionist is different. He may think he’s trying to get it right, but actually he becomes obsessed with the details at the expense of the whole. He chases after a kind of Platonic idea of perfection. If he painted a portrait, for instance, he might take months rendering an exquisite nose, failing to notice that he has stuck the nose in the middle of the subject’s forehead. I’ve struggled with this corrupt form of perfectionism for much of my life, and it has taken me many years to change my ways. These days I’m trying to be more like Disney.
This is an excellent observation.
One thing that differentiated Walt Disney from so many other business owners and leaders with whom he competed was his ability to use his creative imagination and embed it in a holistic process of discovery to identify and envision a viable end result. He then communicated and organized others to think, discover, and develop content that would bring him closer to his vision.
Perfection for Walt Disney was contextual, defined by the ends being aimed at and the practicality of achieving the goal. Walt understood that he could never achieve perfection, and likely never defined his own work as one of achieving perfection. He may have imagined and wanted perfection, but knew he would have to settle for less than he desired, but was inclined to settle for only the best mindful effort of the highest quality he believed his people could deliver.
One might say he imagined the Platonic Ideal, then scaled back slightly to focus on the human ideal. When he got close enough to his vision as he deemed practical, a simple “that will do” settled the issue.
For Walt, the end result was never achievement of the Platonic Ideal. It was always to achieve the best outcome to expand the horizon of what is possible and create happiness, wonder, and perhaps enlightenment for Disney audiences and guests.
Walt’s words of dedication of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, speaks to his aspirations not just for Disneyland, but for all of mankind:
To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.
The reader provided an additional observation:
One more comment. I was struck by the idea of a “discontinuous improvement” – a creative leap that challenges an assumption – being much better than a series of continuous improvements. You may be able to predict the continuous improvements, but those creative leaps seem to come out of nowhere. I suppose that’s why when people try to predict the long-term future, they invariably get it wrong.
What makes the story of Walt Disney so interesting is the number of times over the span of his career he was able to achieve “discontinuous” improvements. Some people refer to such moments of innovation as paradigm shifts, or inflection points, or iconoclastic thinking.
There are many well-known examples documented throughout the book, the two most revolutionary and well-known being the decision by Walt to create the animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the invention of the theme park with Disneyland in California.
Continuous improvement goes on all the time. Generally, this is just innovation in problem solving (and an inherent and natural aspect of the process of human action).
Some people like to be leaders and some followers when it comes to innovation. First-hand innovators solve problems; second-hand innovators follower and adopt the solutions discovered by first-hand innovators. Much has been written about whether being a leader or a follower with regards to innovation is the best or superior business strategy.
Walt believed in being a leader in innovation, and was served well by his discipline and ability to think long-term and project outwards with imagination and logic to discover and observe in his mind’s eye the wide-ranging consequences of various paths of action.
I believe that Walt Disney developed a talent for visual imaginative thinking, and practiced it with a specific methodology. It is this process of imagination and discovery that leads to new untried ideas of first-hand innovators. Followers – the second-hand innovators – will never be paradigm shifters. Rather, they proceed in increments. First-hand innovators proceed in ways that are unprecedented, seeking ways to bring that which they imagine in their minds to the real world in ways that have never been done before. This is very often the path of the most iconoclastic entrepreneurs.
The imagination can run wild, and one never knows how a vision can be engineered into true existence. In Disney’s world, this conjoining of imagination and engineering was defined as “Imagineering”, with Imagineers assigned the task of applying engineering science to bring into existing content heretofore bounded by imagination.
The future cannot be predicted when first-hand innovation is given free reign. It is for this reason, one may surmise, that Walt Disney was a natural optimist about the unbounded potential of human capability and the positive contributions of man’s unencumbered mind to discover knowledge and apply it through science and the arts to enhance the well-being of all humans and the welfare of the planet.
© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.
Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler.