Throughout his roughly forty-five-year career, from Kansas City, Missouri, to California and Florida, Walt Disney marched towards a higher vision of possibility and actuality as seen in contrast to the “failed” solutions of business and urban planning conventions. He was an innovator across a large number of areas including cartoons and family entertainment; filmmaking and film exhibition technology; computer animated entertainment (audio-animatronics); theme parks; Imagineering; land development; civic development; and new business practices including integrated marketing and large-scale customer-service excellence.
I recently spent three years researching the entrepreneurial achievements and adventures of the American business icon Walt Disney (1901-1966) using the latest available historical research. I document his roller-coaster career of “doing the impossible” and challenging his critics, and the lessons we can learn and apply to our own careers and life challenges in my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press). Like so many other now famous entrepreneurial iconoclasts, Walt Disney’s achievements were unique to his time and place, but his methods are of kind with other entrepreneurs and high-functioning executives.
One important aspect of Walt Disney’s method for success was his ability to pay attention to failure or disappointment as he perceived it in the context of his endeavours, and to leverage his imagination towards a better and more desirable outcome.
At the highest level, his focus was always towards improving family entertainment and human happiness, and of driving optimism and inspiration through education and imagination. When he thought he had found a better way to create outcomes he desired, he would invest in practical and informal trial and error or more involved and formal R&D, and then make a decision as to whether and how to take appropriate action to monetize his ideas and the unique skills and talents of his staff. He would often begin projects and then shut them down if he was dissatisfied with how they were progressing, until a later time when skills, resources, technologies, finances, or market conditions had advanced to a place where the likelihood of success was enhanced.
Not only did Disney learn from an analysis of both successes and failures in creating products that succeeded in the marketplace, he was also a realist and keen analyst of the shortcomings of conventional thought and practice. Through his unique perspective of what was possible to excite audiences and customers and his personal convictions about character, integrity, quality, and value, he built and led his organization to pursue a level of quality that competitors, bankers, staff, friends and family deemed at times to be imprudent and reckless. And yet from Walt Disney’s perspective he was acting to secure marketplace advantage, reduce risk, and avoid the failure he saw in the conventional product offerings of his competitors.
Let’s look at some examples of how Walt Disney embraced failure as a welcomed stepping-stones on the path to a higher plateau of success.
When Walt Disney first explored the possibility of building a park for the studio in the early 1950s, his intention was to create a recreational environment where parents and children could do things together in a clean, safe, stimulating, and fun environment. Disney set for himself the task of discovering and visiting such places so he could learn how to build such a park. To his amazement, with one or two exceptions, such places didn’t exist. He realized that to create the kind of park he envisioned, he would have to invent his own blueprint. That there was no existing precedent was an indicator to Walt that whatever amusement park owners and tourist attraction operators thought to be the best way to do things, they were wrong. Their idea of success was Walt Disney’s idea of failure. From Walt Disney’s perspective, there was a big gap between the experience that people were getting and the experience they more deeply desired, i.e., between what was the accepted norm and what it could be.
Conventional thinking in this area failed to meet Walt Disney’s minimally acceptable standards. As he visited parks and tourist attractions, and observed the way they operated, he realized that what he was investigating was not how to run a successful tourist attraction, but rather the opposite: how to run an unsuccessful tourist attraction. In a way, discovering how not to do things made Walt Disney’s challenge easier, for it established a point of contrast and set him on a quest to figure out what was wrong with the existing amusement park business model in the context of his own unique vision for creating a fun and family-inclusive experience. His difficult challenge as an entrepreneur was to figure out a viable business model to justify the park’s existence and create enough excitement and interest to entice outside investors to seriously consider investing in an industry that had a rock bottom reputation for sleaziness.
As long as Disney was just thinking, it didn’t cost him any money. But as soon as he required others to contribute their own thinking and expertise, he had to hire staff and pay wages. Many of the people he initially hired to work on the imagining and building of what would become Disneyland came from Twentieth Century Fox. There was a good reason for this. According to Disney artist Herb Ryman’s biographer, John Stanley Donaldson, Twentieth Century Fox had a backlot that was “five times the size of Disneyland. Having everything—from temple to tenement. A period riverfront had been constructed to thirty acres, replete with streets, buildings, and piers; a replica steamboat, the Clermont, side-paddled to a three-acre basin, excavated to a depth of seven feet—filled with five million gallons of water. … The place just needed a turnstile.”
In Walt Disney’s mind, designing and building a working studio backlot wasn’t conceptually much different than building a working park. He sought and hired artists with experience in set design and storytelling, identified the gaps, and worked to close them.
Walt Disney made a common practice of studying and learning from his own and others’ mistakes and failures. With access to his own exceptional and vivid imagination, it was almost habitual for him to quickly identify shortcomings, from which he would springboard to a creative solution that could be aligned with his own vision and values. Disney used a method of contrast and extension.
As a mundane and every-day-type of illustration of how Walt Disney consciously used this technique of contrast and extension, consider that in the estimation of legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball, Walt had two artists on staff in the late 1940s who were inefficient and incapable of doing good work. During a private discussion In which Kimball raised the issue, Disney defended their contributions to Kimball, noting, “Homer and Harry are alright. By doing things wrong, I can tell the right way of doing things.” In other words, Walt understood that it was in part Walt’s perceived shortcomings of Homer and Harry that made them valuable members of his team. In this regard, mistakes and failures served as a foil for Disney—as a point of contrast or demarcation against a more suitable alternative. Walt Disney understood that in the realm of creativity, he would be worse off without such points of contrast upon which to build. Walt Disney used “failure” or perceived deficiency as a jumping-off point for brainstorming different and better solutions.
By investing in and embracing his own mistakes, failures, and disappointments as well as those of others, Walt Disney was able to partake in valuable R&D and investigative techniques leading him to different options and perspectives on how to overcome difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible challenges. Walt Disney is quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1966: “I happen to be kind of an inquisitive guy and when I see things I don’t like, I start thinking, why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?”
© 2020, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.
Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group in Toronto, Canada, where he and his colleagues have been helping executives and owners define and align their business purpose with customer values since 1994. Barry 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 also a writer, photographer, researcher, analyst, and business strategy enabler. Read his blog and learn more at barrylinetsky.com.