NLP: The Disney Strategy for Creativity

NLP Disney Strategy for Creativity

How would you like to facilitate an ideas-generation workshop with a group of insurance underwriters, actuaries and finance people? People who by both inclination and training are about the most detail-focused and risk-averse you could find.

Would you be expecting an exciting, productive session, or a day of hard work with not much to show at the end of it?

I was asked to run that very workshop some years ago, and it could have turned out to be a very hard grind. Fortunately, being trained in NLP, I had a robust and easy-to-use format to call on.

This simple but powerful process was developed by NLP pioneer Robert Dilts, who based it on the way Walt Disney used to organise his creative teams to come up with ideas. It’s detailed in Dilt’s book Strategies of Genius Vol. 1, which also has ideas drawn from the thought processes, as far as they can be modelled, of Aristotle, Mozart, and Sherlock Holmes (!)

The biggest block to creativity in business is the tendency, culturally ingrained to a greater or lesser extent depending on country, industry sector and profession, to shoot down new ideas before they get off the runway by pointing out all the reasons why they couldn’t work. If you’ve ever been on the receiving of this treatment, you will be familiar with how it rapidly shuts down your imagination and your willingness to contribute.

In fact, of course, when imagining new ways of doing things there are no bad ideas. The least practical suggestion may by association spark the eventual solution. If new ideas are critiqued too soon they can’t develop, and creativity is stifled.


The Disney Strategy gets round this problem by separating idea generation into three distinct phases: a ‘Dreamer’ mode where all new ideas are encouraged, a ‘Realist’ or ‘Implementer’ mode which looks at how to make the ideas work in practice, and finally a ‘Critic’ mode which looks for flaws in the ideas and what could go wrong. There is an excellent article by Mark McGuinness which gives more background from books and interviews by Disney and people who worked with him.

The result is that many more ideas can be generated quickly, and those which look promising have a chance to develop and mature a little before they are examined for potential failings.

Any problems or flaws found at the Critic stage can be processed through the cycle again – Dreaming up ways of fixing them, working out how to Implement the fixes, and running a Critical eye over them to identify any new problems.

There are many different ways you can implement the Disney Strategy – here are some possibilities:

  1. Guide the whole group through each phase. It works best when you make the ‘rules’ for each phase explicit (e.g. ‘all ideas are good ideas’ for the Dreamer phase, and ‘we are looking for how it could work, not how it could fail’ for the Implementer stage). To emphasise the distinction between the phases, you could get participants to move to a different table, a different room or a different physical location. To warm the group up for each phase, you could invite them to remember a time when they were creative, when they made something work in practice, or they successfully looked for and fixed problems.
  2. Divide a larger group into teams, each Dreaming up ideas. Then rotate their ideas to another group for the Implementer phase, and rotate again for the Critic phase.
  3. Assign the Dreamer, Implementer and Critic roles to different people. Some people will be naturally suited to one role or another. You could spread the process out over time, or you could have everyone present throughout – for example, if you have a natural Critic in your team, you could brief them to silently take note of any flaws that they spot in the Dreamer and Implementer phases, only revealing the criticisms that are still relevant when it comes to the Critic phase.

You can also use the Disney Strategy by yourself as an idea generation method. Make sure you move to a different physical location, take a break, or do something completely different to make a clean distinction between each of the three phases.

So this is how it worked out with the insurance people. We actually ran two workshops, one with the backroom finance boys and one with call centre staff. About a week before the workshops, we sent out idea sheets (decorated with the traditional lightbulb picture) to each group so they could record and bring in any ideas they had.

The call centre people came into their workshop with stacks of ideas, some workable, some wacky. The underwriters and actuaries came in with three or four cautious proposals between them.

We used the “whole group, three phases” format (option 1 above). We made the rules for each stage explicit at the start. At first, the finance people, as you would expect from their professional roles and the industry they were in, were very quick to find the faults in each idea. Sometimes, even the person whose idea it was would break off their explanation half way through and start pointing out reasons why it wouldn’t work.

However, because they knew what the rules were for the Dreamer phase, they stopped themselves half-way through their critiques, as soon as they realised what they were doing. In some cases they even criticised themselves for criticising! Gradually, they eased up on the habit of instantly scanning for flaws, and the ideas started to flow more freely. We ended up with 30-40 ideas stuck up on flipchart pages on the wall.

I’m not pretending it was an easy ride, like it was with the call centre group (who took to the process like naturals). The backroom people heaved a sigh of relief when we exited the Dreamer phase and started coming back to earth for Implementation. And they really came into their own in the Critic phase. You can bet that the ideas that were still standing at the end of the workshop were pretty much bullet-proof!

If I could use the Disney Strategy with a detail-oriented, problem-scanning, risk-averse group like that, you can use it with anyone. Why not leave a comment letting me know how you have used the Disney Strategy, or if there’s anything else you want to know about it?

Image of Walt Disney from NASA website via Wikipedia

© 2010 – 2020, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Resli Costabell

    I've tried the Disney procedure, idea by idea. I.e., take one idea through all three stages, before playing with the next idea. This seemed to make it easier on individuals who struggled with some of the roles (particularly for natural Critics who were trying to be Dreamers.) However, it started to feel laborious at times, so I'd short-circuit the technique a bit.

    Is there a stage at which you winnow out the wealth of ideas generated, in order to decide which to put through the whole process? Why I'm asking: going through the entire process for each idea would be exhausting, if you've done some good idea generation. Yet discarding ideas before the Implementing stage would seem to put the cart before the horse.

    Or are there other ways you'd suggest for keeping true to the beauty of honouring each idea, yet without losing momentum or taking an eternity to work through the process for each idea?

  2. Andy Smith

    Thanks Resli,

    You're right, it would be exhausting to go through the entire process for each idea, and I wouldn't do it anyway. Here's why:

    Some ideas will not work. It will be obvious that they won't work, even to the originator. Even in the moment of unveiling them, it will be obvious that they are ludicrous. And that's great! We want ludicrous, unrealistic, weak or even crap ideas in the Dream stage – because they could spark an association in the group's mind that leads to another idea, that leads to another and then to another. That last one could be the idea that saves the organisation.

    This is why running the process idea by idea will hobble the process – because you won't get the creative sparking of ideas off each other which is the whole point of the Dreamer stage. I can see why it would feel laborious – in fact I think it's a testimony to your prodigious qualities as a facilitator that you got any value from that version at all.

    So this is what I would do. Generate loads of ideas in the Dream stage – remember, we're not judging them at this point. Then, at the beginning of the Implementor stage, have the team group related ideas, and select the group or groups they most feel like running with. Naturally they will focus on the strongest groups, and the strongest individual ideas within a group. They will probably have a better idea than you of what will fly.

    If there's limited time, make them aware beforehand of how long they have for the Implementor phase to focus their minds. They will want to pick the ideas with the most potential, and jettison those that obviously won't work.

    So we don't have to 'nonour' each idea beyond the Dream stage. Some of them have come into being purely as transitional evolutionary steps on the way to something else, and it would be dishonouring them to try to prolong them beyond their natural lifespan – like trying to retell one of those off-the-cuff jokes that people make, the ones where you really had to be there.

    I hope that clarifies the process.

  3. Gavin Ingham

    "…when imagining new ways of doing things there are no bad ideas. The least practical suggestion may by association spark the eventual solution. If new ideas are critiqued too soon they can't develop, and creativity is stifled…"

    A great summary Andy and a must-read for everyone thinking about brainstorming… I hope that Lord Alan Sugar & Karen Brady find your blog (!

  4. Andy Smith

    Thanks Gavin. There's a minimum of 2 'r's in 'Karren' BTW

  5. Andy Smith

    Generalising slightly from the formal model, you can also use the idea of keeping the Critic until last to find a useful role for a natural nitpicker/glass-half-empty type in meetings – get them to note down any flaws or things that could go wrong and share them *after* everyone else has had their say on a particular item.

  6. Stefan

    Hi Andy,
    What would you suggest is the best amount of people for a group? I mean, when would you split up the group in two or more teams? I’d like to do this with +/- 18 people.



  7. Andy Smith

    Hi Stefan,

    I would either split the group into smaller teams – probably 4 groups – each Dreaming up ideas. Then rotate their ideas to another group for the Implementer phase, and rotate again for the Critic phase. This is as suggested in option 2 in the original post.

    Alternatively, and this would probably work even better, have 4 groups in the Dream stage (each group has 4 or 5 members – enough to bounce ideas off each other but not so large that the quieter members can hide). Then take all ideas, have the group as a whole select which ideas they want to take further, perhaps assign ideas to sub-groups in the Implementer stage (these could be different from the groups in the Dream stage, and you will want a mix of disciplines), and again perhaps assign subgroups to particular ideas in the Critic stage.

  8. Andy Smith

    Stefan: Recent research on brainstorming as a whole (don’t have time to find the link for it at the moment) suggests that extroverts in a brainstorming group of any kind will shout their ideas out first, and the introverts or quieter members of a group (who may have better ideas) either don’t get heard, or their creative processes are influenced in the direction of the first ideas that the extroverts come up with.

    To combat this, ask each person individually to bring ideas with them (as I did with the workshops for insurance staff in the article) and also start the Dream stage with a couple of minutes of silent reflection, where each person thinks of their own ideas and writes them down. Each person reads out the ideas to their sub-group before any ‘brainstorming’ starts.

    1. Stefan

      Hi Andy,

      We had a very good brainstorm session with 18 people divided over 4 groups. Each group was with one of Master-Practitioners from my NLP group. We started with the Dreaming stage and then came back together. Then we made new groups and these groups went on with the dreams. That made it a bit difficult, I wouldn’t do that again. We thought it was a bit more difficult this way. But when the new groups were in the implementing fase and then in the critic stage *wow*!! We gathered again in one room, discussed our ideas and went on with the dreaming stage. Now, this was the moment we had to stop (running late in the evening after a long working day). Stopping after the the dreaming stage was good; we all left with a lot of energy and a good feeling. (We thought it was better than stopping after the critic stage, because the evening would end in a more negative atmosphere which would be understandable just after the critic sage I guess) The next week, the groups went on were they left and from what I’ve heard, (I wasn’t there the second time) it was a big success with lots of good ideas.

      Thanks again for your ideas and good advise!

      Kind regards,


  9. Stefan

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you for your advice! I really appreciate it, I’ll let you know (in december) how it all worked out!

    Kind regards,

  10. coachingleaders

    Just had to say that Robert Dilts has just commented “Great article!” on Facebook!

  11. margaret

    Great article Andy! I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer explanation of how to get it to work in practice not theory. And it might be an idea to add your response in the comments to Resli’s question because that really cleared up a potential hurdle in the training room.

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