How Walt Disney saved his best for last. And you can too.

I have finally finished reading Walt Disney. The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It was not a small book after all. To the contrary, it was large, dense and fascinating. Author, Neal Gabler, is an enviable writer who pulls back the curtain to reveal Disney as a complex, chain-smoking, reluctant American icon.

What I learned.

I picked up this book because I wanted to understand the formula behind Disney’s magic.  I wanted to know how he made all those great movies and cartoons. How he got us to put on those silly mouse-ear hats and think we looked cool. And how he got us to pay $100 a noggin to visit his Land or World.

As Founder of the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I am always looking for insights from other great creative businesses. So I’ve been studying organizations like Disney, Pixar, The Wright Brothers Workshop, Andy Warhol’s Factory and North Korea’s Vacation and Tourism Board.

I expected Walt Disney would be a book about creativity. Certainly there is a lot of creativity and imagineering in the book. Walt was a visionary who had a crystal clear picture in his head of everything he set out to create. But the reason everyone should read this book is to see how hard his journey really was.

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For almost 500 pages of the biography you wonder when Walt Disney will finally catch a break. Seriously. The classic movies we know and love today were largely box office flops, failing to make enough money to pay for production. Disney was a half-step ahead of the Financial Grim Reaper for what seemed like the bulk of his career. In the 1940s he narrowly avoided bankruptcy thanks to government film contracts during WWII. He just kept doing what he had to do to keep his mouse ears above water.

The next time you are working on unsexy projects for tough clients, take comfort in knowing that Walt Disney did the same thing to keep his dreams alive too.

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Saving The Best For Last

But the most fascinating thing about the book was that the greatest achievement of his career didn’t come until the very end. In fact, it wasn’t even mentioned until page 603 of the 633 page book. That’s right, Disney World, the 40 square mile resort the size of San Francisco, was his best and last chapter.

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When Walt told his wife about his plans for Disney World she was aghast, asking him, ‘What do you want to do that for?’  He replied,

I would get stagnant if I didn’t do new things.

Today Disney World employs 62,000 people, making it the largest single-site employer in the country.

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What it means to you and me.

It is never too late in your career to have your biggest and best chapter. If you are willing to keep growing and pushing and driving yourself, the best is still in front of you. Employ all of your accumulated experiences, insights and know-how to create bigger and better chapters of your own story.  Keep doing new things until you are done. Like done, done.

Thanks for reading.

See you real soon.

The End.

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What we can all learn from the Best Picture snafu at the Oscars.

When I woke up Monday morning my iPhone was practically on fire. It was glowing and crackling with texts, tweets and push notes. The world was dying to tell me about the disaster at the Oscars. The wrong movie had been announced as Best Picture. OMG!  Hollywood had been embarrassed on national TV! Those poor, wealthy celebrities…

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I couldn’t wait to see the clip. (You can see the whole thing by clicking here. You’re welcome.)

It did not disappoint. The seven minutes of crazy was even better than I could have imagined. It was a train wreck. I squirmed through Warren Beatty’s confusion. I cringed through Faye Dunaway’s quick scan of the card. I felt terrible for La La Land’s la-cast and la-crew celebrating, and thanking, and feeling honored, before having their pants pulled down on stage in front of the world.

I felt even worse for the Moonlighters, who couldn’t really celebrate. After all, they just lost. Now, they didn’t know if they were coming on stage just to have their pants pulled down, before being forced to hand their hand-me-down awards to Manchester By The Sea. I watched it all several times. I will remember those seven minutes of award show infamy longer than I will remember the movies.  

What we can learn.

However, it is important that we take away more from this than the uncomfortable entertainment. Following the debacle I heard many people exclaim, “Someone should get fired over that mistake!”  Let’s think bigger.

We now know that the presenter, Warren Beatty, was handed the wrong envelope by a Price Waterhouse Cooper accountant. PWC has done this for 83 years. Which means a new gremlin was introduced that exposed a flaw in their process. As the founder of the ad agency The Weaponry, I see Envelopegate as a welcomed reminder that we should all use our mistakes to help improve our processes. Not to punish the mistakers.

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In the book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (yes, I really read a book about checklists) Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon, champions checklists as a way to ensure processes are implemented that help save lives in hospitals. He also cites checklists for having done more to prevent airplane crashes than any other innovation. If a checklist helps save lives in hospitals and on aircraft, certainly a checklist could be used to help save some unfortunate moments at The Weaponry and in Hollywood. And probably when you leave a restroom.

Simple Solution

A simple checklist used by the PWC accountants backstage, and the award presenters, would have prevented the mistake.

  1. Ask presenter what award they are announcing.
  2. Check run of show list to make sure the award they are scheduled to present matches answer.
  3. Read the award category written on announcement envelope aloud to make sure it matches before handing it to the presenter.
  4. Make presenter read the category on the announcement envelope aloud to make sure it matches before allowing them on stage.

Boom. Done. Bonnie and Clyde get away.

A Story

Once upon a time I was shooting a TV commercial in Indianapolis for Donatos pizza. When we arrived at the production company’s office for the wardrobe fitting, I was shocked to see the wrong actress there, trying on clothes. After a quick and panicked huddle we understood what had happened. It seemed that once the client signed off on our talent choices for the commercials, a message was relayed to the production house that we would be using all of our first choice talent. So the production company called, and hired, all the first choice talent. However, the first choices were not the same on both the agency’s list and the production company’s list. Yikes!

That afternoon, the production company made magic. They tracked down the actress who should have played the lead, and got her on a flight that night from Iowa City (which is where you go when you don’t think you got the lead in a pizza commercial) to Indianapolis. The next day we shot the commercial and it turned out great. More importantly, we improved our process. After that, my teams have always confirmed the talent choices by name, not first choice or backup.

What you can do now.

Today, I encourage you to watch the clip from the show again. Because it reminds us that mistakes happen. Mistakes are great at indicating flaws in our systems and processes. If we respond correctly, we come out stronger, with a better way of doing things and a lower chance of that same mistake happening again.

Through better processes we can save more lives, we can avoid plane crashes and we can prevent a lot of embarrassment. Getting angry doesn’t prevent a mistake from happening again. Getting better does. There is no need to fire anyone. I think we can all agree that the person responsible for the Best Picture goof will never, ever make that mistake again. Just as Steve Bartman will never again interfere with a fly ball.

If you have a process improvement story spurred by a mistake please share it in the comment section. You may help others avoid the same mistake. Or maybe you’ll just make us laugh. I’ll take either.