Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fixing WDI

The entire problem with Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) can be summed up in one word, “Accountability.”

At WDI, promotions are given out based on ones willingness to support management decisions, not ones ability to achieve results. Before any progress can be made, the WDI executives responsible for failures like Disney’s California Adventure, Disney Studios Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland need to be held accountable. So far, no one at WDI has taken any responsibility for these gargantuan errors in judgement. The fact is, nobody at WDI feels responsible. They all claim that they were just following orders, and on the surface this appears to be true. At WDI, the unofficial motto is, “to get along, you have to go along.” This means going along with bad ideas, inefficient production methods, poor casting choices, artificially inflated budgets…basically everything management dictates. To do otherwise is to risk your job.

However, there are those who did not simply keep quiet in order to protect their jobs, but actively supported many recent blunders. Some of them were rewarded with promotions, raises or choice assignments. These yes men and women should be called on the carpet by the new CEO. They are just as responsible as their bosses for the sorry state of the Disney Theme Parks and the tarnished reputation of Walt Disney Imagineering. Mortgaging the future of the company for a larger salary and impressive-sounding title can not be excused by the phrase: “I was just following orders.”

Accountability is the first step. The second is a shift in the corporate culture that rewards innovation and allows for a more open exchange of ideas. This is the foundation of any successful creative institution. After these elements are put in place, WDI will be on the road to becoming a healthy working environment again—with employees who are actually motivated to create value for the company.

Here are a few tips for the future management of Walt Disney Imagineering on how to foster a positive working environment:

1. Smaller, smarter management. Currently, WDI has a very top-heavy reporting structure. This needs to be reversed.

2. The integrity of the product should be more important than membership in the old boys’ network. WDI isn’t Hollywood. There is no need for WDI to imitate the worst business model in the country.

3. Reward those who achieve results.

4. Open communication with Walt Disney Feature Animation. WDI rarely takes advantage of its shared history and close proximity to Feature Animation. There was a time when the two creative groups worked together for mutual benefit. But today, WDI management has deliberately restricted communication with the Animation department (as well as many other divisions of the company).

5. Trust your people, and work to earn their trust.

6. Do not hire or promote slick Hollywood types or charcoal gray MBAs who think Disney is corny or sappy. People who are emotionally committed to Disney will stick around for the long-term and will make choices with the future of the company in mind (not just the next fiscal quarter). Emotional commitment and good business practices are not mutually exclusive. For a practical demonstration, see Pixar.

7. Do not rely on guest polls, surveys, and trend studies. They are never perfect and are easily slanted to produce a predetermined result.

8. Remember, not taking any risks is the biggest risk of all.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The New Nostalgia

Walt Disney never minced words. He loved the nostalgic and knew the value of celebrating the ‘things of the past’ in his films, television shows and later Disneyland.

It was from this appreciation for the nostalgic that Main Street U.S.A. was born, the central thoroughfare by which park visitors enter the lands of fantasy, adventure and tomorrow at Disneyland. Here Walt hoped the older generation of the day could relive their “fond memories of the past”.

It cannot be over-emphasized how much these senior Disneyland citizens delighted in this loving recreation of their childhood days gone by during the first couple decades of the parks existence. Nor can it be overstated how revolutionary the concept of catering to older visitors alongside younger ones within an outdoor amusement enterprise was.

And, being that Grandma and Grandpa weren’t staying at home while the kids played, how profitable.

The generation of Disneyland guests who were alive during the turn of century and took special pleasure in Walt’s nod to it are long gone now and consequently the very cornerstone philosophy that welcomed them to the Magic Kingdom as well. As the years progressed Disneyland stopped catering to the grandparents altogether, valuing more the thrill hungry teen market and the attention deficient kiddy quotient. Today Grandma and Grandpa are more likely to stay home.

Power players at Imagineering would be wise to lure this long ignored yet vital market share back to Disneyland. But how? What’s the Main Street equivalent for the Baby Boomers in the here and now? What could Disneyland do to embrace their nostalgia for days gone by?

One need not look any further than Disneyland itself.

Here’s the living embodiment of mid century mainstream; a park built on the back of that wild new gadget, the television, and exploding into the American consciousness alongside coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears. Those 60, 70 or 80 would remember that time fondly. For them Disneyland IS today’s nostalgia.

Or was.

Seems that along with the death of Walt’s generation, so too went much of the entertainment that catered to their high regard for whimsy, charm and nostalgia over visceral thrills. Current management would benefit immensely by bankrolling attractions that take their cue from these neglected classics; Circlevision 360, The Golden Horseshoe Revue, the Peoplemover, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, America Sings and many more.

Though much of the appetite for Disneyland nostalgia was sated with Disneyland’s 50th, a few thousand cans of paint isn’t enough. Those that grew up watching Annette grow out are going to need the reassurance that if they visit the park much of that corny flag-waving because-we-love-you Disneyland will still be there, a place happy to make room for Rocket Ships and Pirate Ships, singing birds and singing bears and leisurely rides high in the sky.

To embrace the heritage of Disneyland today is to embrace a long neglected member of the Disney family as well, individuals who would spare no expense to reconnect with some of those fond childhood memories of the past.

It’s time to give seniors their Disneyland citizenship back.

"You know, I have the strangest feeling I've seen that ship before - - a long time ago, when I was very young."

-Mr. Darling
Peter Pan