Sparking phenomenal employee creativity and innovation is the lodestar for many companies, particularly in entertainment. The Walt Disney Company exemplifies that, with employees whose very role is to be creative. The Imagineering department is Disney’s creative division — and its famed Imagineers conceive and design the attractions, hotels, restaurants, and resorts found in the Disney parks. Their jobs are highly coveted both inside and outside the company — it’s a common fantasy among Disney fans to someday work for Imagineering.
But you don’t have to be an Imagineer to create like one. While researching for “Entrepreneurship the Disney Way,” I was struck by how Disney’s Imagineering teams work: their methods hold lessons for us all. The term “Imagineering” combines “engineering” and “imagination.” Imagineers combine blue-sky brainstorming and highly disciplined planning to successfully take a project from start to finish.
Here are five stages of Imagineering that can enhance any creative endeavor, and spark better creativity on any team:
1. Get your head in the clouds.
Let’s say you have a general idea of something you want to pursue. You’re excited about the idea and want to devote more time and money to it. Should you go all in and commit everything to this idea? Not yet: Imagineers and Disney management explore numerous ideas before committing to a project. Imagineers call this the Blue Sky stage — where anything goes and the “sky is the limit.”
Lay out and outline different concepts and big ideas before you decide which one to work on. Let your mind incubate all the possibilities until one really stands apart. And if, after some thought, an idea doesn’t seem achievable, don’t throw it away. Save it in a file. There may come a day when the timing is right for it. Disney often circles back to ideas that have been sitting on a shelf or in a file cabinet.
2. Take an adventure.
Once you have an idea you fully believe has the potential to be a success, learn from other sources. Draw inspiration from everyone, everything and everywhere. Imagineers spend a great deal of time doing background research that later guides the final concept, and often make several visits to places inside and outside the United States to find source material. This may partially explain why Imagineers are so creatively productive and why they enjoy their work so much.
Research doesn’t have to be arduous; it can be an adventure instead. Because engineers are so engrossed in their subject matter, they have a lot of material to work from in shaping their idea later. Productive writers often say that “writer’s block” is frequently due to a lack of research and knowledge on a subject, not the result of a mystical brain condition. Consider it more of a “writer’s void.” If you’re stuck, fill the void. Do more research, talk to more people, and visit more places relevant to your topic. Then come back to your work again: likely, the block will vanish. Treat the need to do more research as an opportunity to get out in the world and have some adventures of your own. It will also make for a better story when you explain your project’s creative journey — and people will understand why you’re the right person to make it happen.
3. Keep everything focused on your big idea.
After thorough research and a clear picture of what you want to create, it’s time to develop the idea in more detail. But where do you start? Imagineers always begin with the experience they are trying to deliver, and make sure the details fit together. With the Blue Sky phase over, Imagineers know what they want to accomplish, and they stay focused on the story they are trying to tell. Imagineers ensure everything is consistent and complements that story.
Even if the new attraction is an imaginary new land that only exists in the park, it has to feel authentic and real. This holistic design only works when creators take a disciplined and deliberative approach to how everything relates to each other. You may even have to remove elements that you like if they detract from a consistent experience by the customer. Some critics say Imagineers are frustratingly slow in the design process, but that patience pays off in top-quality experiences for their guests.
4. Pitch your idea with enthusiasm and good logic.
If you’ve executed the first three steps well, now’s your time to share what you’ve learned and created. Your odds of management support will be better if you can back the idea with research and logic as well as creative flair.
Because the Imagineers have a superb track record, Disney management trusts that the next revenue generators for the parks and resorts division will come from the Imagineering team.
But as with any other company, Imagineers must get approval from corporate leaders. To this end, they deliver exciting presentations designed to meet the criteria Disney management uses for greenlighting a project. No matter how new or exciting the project may be, its creators need to demonstrate how the idea benefits the company’s bottom line, objectives, and long-term success.
5. Commit to your deadlines.
Once a project is greenlighted, it goes into production. Public announcements are made, and land and physical foundations are prepared. Deadlines keep the teams on task. Now is when discipline and execution are important. You may still have to refine and work out some challenges that arise as you build your concept, but it’s at this stage when the Imagineer’s professional discipline, expertise, and experience shine. Each generation at Disney learns from the previous one about how to bring more magic to the parks and resorts, drawing on Disney’s well-established traditions of free-thinking, innovation and structured creation.
Anyone, in any industry, can enhance the quality of their own work by operating like an Imagineer — and encouraging their teams to follow the Disney model. The best creative products come from a combination of divergence and convergence: there’s a time for wild ideas, and there’s a time for disciplined follow-through. Developing both skills is important, as Walt Disney discovered long ago. Disney was his own company’s first Imagineer — but he needed the eccentric workstyle of an animator like Rolly Crump and the discipline of a leader like Admiral Joe Fowler to make his dreams come true. You may not have a team of Imagineers at your disposal, but you can approach any project with these 5 steps to present your best work to the world — and enjoy the process more while you do it.
Michael G. Goldsby is the Chief Entrepreneurship Officer and Stoops Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at Ball State University, USA. His new book with Rob Mathews is Entrepreneurship the Disney Way. Learn more at www.ELProfile.com.