Disney’s former Head of Creativity and Innovation, Duncan Wardle, says professionals don’t play or experiment enough – and it could be a make-or-break factor for your organisation.
There’s a reason we spent so long playing as children. Not only was it fun, it also expanded our minds by allowing us to test out different scenarios and learn how the world worked in a safe environment.
It’s Duncan Wardle’s opinion that most adults don’t play enough. And while this might feel inconsequential to you, it could be the thing that’s holding you back from having more innovative ideas.
“Playfulness is so important at the right time,” says Wardle, former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney. “When I ask my audiences to close their eyes and shout out where they are when they have their best ideas, you’ll hear people say: in the shower, jogging, walking, on my commute, eating, when I’m staring out the window. If there’s 3000 people in that room, not one person will say, at work.”
This is concerning. For knowledge workers, ideas are literally what they’re paid for. For others, a top-notch idea could be the difference between their company thriving or failing. If you want innovation to be on your agenda, play needs to be there too.
Not got time to read the full article? Here’s a snippet of Wardle’s advice:
- If you can’t give your people time to think creatively, your business will suffer. Make a commitment to carve out time for blue-sky thinking.
- Our own expertise is often what holds us back from thinking innovatively. Introduce a ‘naive expert’ into brainstorms to challenge your thinking.
- Partner with organisations that can bring innovation into your business, so they will be unencumbered by your processes and politics.
- Don’t silo innovation by placing it with one team – it needs to be embedded across the whole organisation.
- Find the real story behind your data – that’s where the real insights lie.
- Never underestimate the power of making someone laugh. It puts their brain into a more relaxed, creative state.
Make innovation fun
Before sitting down to speak with Wardle, I put my mobile in a cupboard in my bedroom. Why? Because I knew if I was meeting him in real life, he’d ask me to put my phone in a “cell phone jail” to signal that I’m not only physically in the room with him, but mentally and emotionally there too. That’s something he does with his own teams.
So in an attempt to make the most of my time with the man who is responsible for sending a Buzz Lightyear toy into space with a NASA astronaut and accidentally floating over the walls of the Kremlin in a giant Mickey Mouse hot air balloon, I’m determined to practice what he preaches.
I’m in my apartment in Sydney and he’s dialling in from a hotel in Chicago. Before we launch into our conversation, he points to something behind me.
“Is that a dying pot plant I can see in the corner?” he asks, laughing. “What have you done to it? It looks so dead!”
Sheepishly, I make up any excuse about there not being enough light in my apartment and assure him the other plants off-screen are thriving. We both laugh and it won’t be until midway through our interview that I’ll understand why he made this comment.
Wardle is on a mission to take the intimidation and mystery out of the word ‘innovation’. He wants to make creativity feel tangible for those who feel they don’t work in an inherently creative role. And, most importantly, he wants to make the whole process fun.
“We’ve all been told for years that we need to innovate. We were told we must take risks. We’re told we must think differently. We must be brave. And people are thinking, ‘That’s great, but how?’ Nobody was showing them how to do it.
“I got fed up with leaving conferences feeling inspired, motivated and pumped, but then realising I had no idea what to do next. People want tangible tools they can use in businesses big or small, on challenges big or small, the very next day, and six months down the track.”
What’s stopping us from being more creative?
When Wardle first took on the creativity and innovation portfolio at Disney, he surveyed over 5000 people working there and at its other companies, including Pixar and Marvel, to learn about the barriers that prevent employees from being innovative.
“The number one answer I heard was, ‘I don’t have time to think.’ If you can’t give people a percentage of their day to do that, you’re gone,” he says.
It could be as simple as carving out one hour on the first Friday of every month.
“Gather your team for a brown bag breakfast and invite them to share ideas. No PowerPoint presentations. No asking ‘Why is it good for business?’ Just let them come in and talk about something they’ve seen in the last 30 days that they thought was creative. You’ll be amazed at the amount of ideas you’ll be able to tie back to that conversation.
“People say there’s no time like the present, but I would reverse that and say there’s no present like time. It’s the single most important thing you can give your employees.”
Other barriers people cited – which are likely to be familiar to most people reading this – were overly bureaucratic processes diluting or killing their ideas, people having different definitions of what it meant to be creative, and a predisposition to risk aversion.
Wardle hired a whizz-bang external agency to help break these barriers down. Their solutions were amazing, he says, but they were never around for the execution.
“And they sure as hell weren’t going to show me how they did it, or I wouldn’t have a need to hire them again. So that only took us so far.”
The next step was to create an innovation team, but that presented other challenges.
“The pro of an innovation team is that you have a group of people who wake up every morning as catalysts for change. The con is that nobody in your organisation outside of legal does legal work, nobody outside of sales does sales work. So guess what happens when you create an innovation team? Everyone goes, ‘Oh, thank God. I’m off the hook. We’ve got an innovation team. I’ll just keep doing things the way I’ve always done them.’
“You send this subliminal message that no one else needs to innovate.”
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The third approach Wardle took, which proved to be more successful, was to act as a venture capitalist firm, taking a 50/50 stake in their business.
“We were bringing products and services to market much quicker than we normally would because [the start-ups] were unencumbered by our politics, hierarchy or approval process.”
Introduce a ‘naive expert’ to brainstorms
Throughout his career, Wardle has discovered another common obstacle to creativity: our own expertise.
“The biggest barrier to innovation is your own river of thinking. The more experience you have in an industry, the deeper and wider your river gets to help you make quick and informed decisions.”
When we sit around brainstorming ideas with the same people we’ve worked with for years, we bolster each other’s thinking.
This means we often miss the great ideas floating around the edges.
“We’re being asked to get out of that river of thinking, faster and faster and faster, because of the level of disruption that’s coming.”
“People say there’s no time like the present, but I would reverse that and say there’s no present like time. It’s the single most important thing you can give your employees.” – Duncan Wardle
To do this, he proposes introducing a “naive expert” into all your brainstorming or strategic meetings – someone who doesn’t work in your line of business who can offer a fresh perspective.
“They can ask the silly question that you’re too embarrassed to ask in front of your peers, but it’s the question that needs to be asked. They can throw out the audacious idea ungoverned by your river of thinking. They won’t solve the challenge for you, but they will say or do something to stop you thinking the way you always do.”
Tap into a child-like mindset
If you were to ask someone about the last time they had fun at work, they might talk about a social moment between tasks or with colleagues at the pub after work. Very few will mention something they were working on, a meeting they attended or a presentation they sat through. Why are our work experiences so often void of any fun or play?
Wardle thinks it has a lot to do with how adults think. He cites the common example of the child opening a present and having more fun playing with the box the toy came in than the toy itself.
Children let their imaginations run wild by creating fantasy worlds to exist in. They think in a no-limits fashion; they’re curious – always asking “But why?” – and they experiment.
“And then they go to school. Education is the number one killer of creativity,” says Wardle. “By the time we’re 18, we think we’re not creative unless we can play music or paint. That’s how many people define creativity. I define creativity as the ability to have an idea. We can all do that. Innovation is the ability to get it done.”
To tap back into our childlike minds, we need to introduce more curiosity into our work days, he says.
“How are you going to find that one insight that your competition doesn’t find? By behaving childlike, not childish, and asking the right questions.”
“I define creativity as the ability to have an idea. We can all do that. Innovation is the ability to get it done.” – Duncan Wardle
Rather than rushing to get to the right answer or relying on data without seeking the story behind it, encourage teams to practice curiosity during a brainstorm, presentation or strategy meeting. Wardle refers to an example from his time at Disney.
“If I were to answer why you go to Disneyland on holiday, my data might tell me you go for the new attractions. That would tell me to spend $200 million on a capital investment strategy.
“But if I pause for a moment and take the time to ask [the consumer] more questions – ‘Do you actually go for the new attractions? No, it’s the classics you like? Okay, why is that? Oh, you like the music from the Small World ride? Why? Because you used to go every summer with your mum. And why is that important? Because now you take your daughter.’
“There’s your insight for innovation. It had nothing to do with a capital investment strategy and everything to do with nostalgia and personal memories. That’s a communication campaign right there.”
Laughter is the best medicine
We only use around 13 per cent of our brain’s capacity to make decisions each day, says Wardle. This brain state is what he calls ‘busy beta’.
“It’s where the reticular activating system between your conscious and subconscious brain – which I call a door because it’s easier to remember – is closed. Our subconscious makes up 87 per cent of our brain capacity. And so every innovation you’ve ever seen, every creative problem you’ve ever solved, it’s all back here. But when that door is shut, you don’t have access to it. That’s why people often say, ‘I don’t have time to think.’”
To help people unlock this part of their brains and achieve what he calls ‘alpha’ brain state, Wardle runs exercises he calls ‘energisers’. (HRM will share some further examples of these next week in part two of this article).
“What’s that?” I ask him. And in what I’m coming to understand is Wardle’s style, instead of explaining it to me, he asks me to look around the room for a piece of paper and then to stand up.
“I’m going to give you 30 seconds to tear out your favourite Disney character,” he says. “But there’s one rule. You’ve got to do it with your hands behind your back. Go.”
He begins the countdown and we both start frantically ripping at our paper behind our backs. Our big finish reveals my sorry excuse for a Mickey Mouse and Wardle’s far more impressive Buzz Lightyear. (I feel I should be given some credit. He has obviously done this before). It all feels quite silly; we’re both laughing.
“These are just little exercises I run that are specifically designed to make people laugh. The moment they laugh, I know I’ve opened the door between their conscious and subconscious brain.”
This is when it clicks for me. The pot plant comment: he was trying to make me laugh from the get-go. It’s how he connects and primes people to think differently, even if he didn’t consciously do so during our interview.
This is a powerful yet simple technique that any leader could borrow. In my opinion, it’s the best advice Wardle shared with me because it demonstrates how easy it can be to change your company’s approach to creativity. Sometimes all it takes is a little extra time, a few more questions and a laugh to open your mind up to the brilliance it’s capable of.
A longer version of this article was first published in the July 2022 edition of HRM Magazine, exclusive to AHRI members.
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