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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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