Disrupt or die, former Disney innovation head says

Hundreds of legacy companies will die in the next decade unless they start thinking differently, Duncan Wardle says.

Duncan Wardle likes the Walt Disney quote: “It’s kinda fun to do the impossible.”

He knows more than most about the American entrepreneur who pioneered the animation industry.

Mr Wardle spent 25 years working for The Walt Disney Company, latterly as head of innovation and creativity. He now uses the innovation model he honed at Disney as a speaker and coach for global brands including the likes of Disney, Coca-Cola, Ford, Johnson & Johnson and McKinsey.

He says the larger and legacy brands are suffering from disruptive technology. Corporates need to think more like risk-taking entrepreneurs but they’re instead too focused on their quarterly short-term results, he says.

“The problem is they are so good at what they have done for the past 100 years under a product-centric culture – we build it, they will come – be it cars, soft drinks or theme parks, and it worked for 100 years so they’re having a really hard time trying to change from a product-centric model to a consumer-centric model,” he says.

In the past five years Google and Apple have emerged as a major competitive threat to the established carmakers because they’ve come in saying "there are no rules as we don’t know how to make cars but they already know they don’t need a steering wheel," he says.

“Who do you think will be making cars in 10 years from today, the big automotive companies or Apple and Google?”

He cites another example: a large US tool company he did some consultancy work for where he spent time at a DIY store watching consumers as they shopped. He reported back that consumers didn’t care about the company’s brand, products or price point; what they did care about was building their dream kitchen or dream living room or whatever the particular project was.

He asked the company if it was a brand that could help people build their dreams, what other lines of business could it get into and what out of within the tool industry?

“They all looked at me like I was mad and I said ‘Guys, they’re already printing houses in Texas today in 3D so imagine what you will print at home 10 years from now? Twenty per cent of your Amazon purchases will be printed on a 3D printer so, if I can print anything I want 10 years from now, what will I use a tool for?’”

But the challenge for the toolmaker was not wanting to disrupt its quarterly result, he says.

“It’s now about 'disrupt or die.' It’s not about iteration any more, it’s about innovation. But here’s the challenge for most companies, every chief executive wants innovation but they don’t know how to do it.”

The toolbox
Mr Wardle has developed an innovation toolkit, the Imagination Emporium, aimed at providing simple, easy-to-use tools for staff members to think more creatively.

Any innovation project requires four stages, he says: clearly defining an opportunity and aligning and inspiring a team around it; discovering the consumer motivation that meets the business goal; ways to challenge the team to think big and develop breakthrough ideas; and efficient and effective execution of the plan.

There is never a lack of ideas in any company – the problem lies in execution, he says.

He’s a big fan of open source innovation where a company identifies a challenge it wants to be solved and puts it to the marketplace.

The best four or five ideas can be short-listed and those and the entrepreneurs behind them can be brought into the organisation. The company can then mentor the entrepreneurs on building a business project around the idea, help them bring it to market, and take a joint share in it, he says.

“These are young entrepreneurs, they know their product really well and are passionate about it but they don’t know how to build a business plan. But you do,” Mr Wardle says.

One of his favourite innovation tools is What if, a tool used by Walt Disney when he created Disneyland.

Disney use a tool called 'What If'.
Disney uses a tool called 'What If.'

Under What if, you quickly list the rules of the challenge, then ask what if the rules didn’t exist.

In Walt Disney’s case, he listed the rules of showing his movies in cinemas, which were dark and dirty where he couldn’t control the environment and asked what if he could control the environment? When that wasn’t provocative enough, he asked "what if I took my movies out of the theatre?" and then imagined a world where he could make that work – Disneyland.

Mr Disney received zoning permission in 1952 to build a theme park in Burbank, Los Angeles, near the Disney studios but the site proved too small and a larger one was bought further south in Anaheim. The entrepreneur self-funded a group of designers and animators known as the Imagineers to work on the theme park plans.  

Another What if example was a project Mr Wardle worked on while at Disney to solve its biggest consumer complaint, having to stand in line. “We asked what if there was no line?”

The result was the introduction in 2014 of MagicBand, an all-in-one RFID-chipped device that visitors can just tap to enter the theme parks, get fast access to the rides they want to experience, unlock their hotel room and buy food and merchandise.

“If we’d asked how do we make more money, we would have put up our gate prices by 2% but by asking how we might solve the biggest consumer pain point, as a result of the project, the average consumer now has two hours free time inside a Disney theme park each day that they didn’t have four years ago.

“If you think about what do we do with our free time – we spend money. It’s probably the single-biggest revenue generating idea without significant capital investment.”

Making time
Tools and the right framework alone won’t produce innovation. Creative behaviours, including playfulness, also have to be nurtured, he says.

The single biggest barrier to innovation is time. “We hear ourselves saying ‘I don’t have time to think,” he says.

Google is likely to top the list if anyone is asked to name five of the most innovative companies in the world and that’s because it gives employees time to think, he says.

“Their engineers are actually given one day a week time to think, which resulted in Gmail, Google Goggles, Google Maps and Google Glass. A smaller organisation could give their employees just one day a month with no meetings, no emails, no presentations and give them time to think,” he says.

Google Glass was developed in the developer's famed '20% Time'.
Google Glass was developed in the developer's famed '20% Time.'

It’s also about tapping into the creativity people were all born with that gets knocked out when they go through school, Mr Wardle says.

“Children are very curious and ask why, why, and why again and we stop asking why because we are told there is only one right answer.”

His tip to Kiwi entrepreneurs is to develop the four skill sets that will be the strongest in the next decade – imagination, intuition, curiosity and creativity – because they will be the only skill sets not replaceable by artificial intelligence.

Mr Wardle was a speaker at a recent Sydney conference organised by NBR's chairman.