How Disney Creates Its Magic

Disneyland California's Main Street Train Station

"Mickey Mouse management isn't a joke. It's the ticket to your business future."

So says the book The Disney Way - Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson. Extolling the virtues of the world's largest entertainment and media company, the volume is peppered with tales of how Walt Disney with the support of his brother Roy Disney started this company in 1923 with just $500 borrowed from their uncle and grew it over the decades.

Today, Disney (or the Walt Disney Company) is easily one of the most recognisable consumer brand in the planet. With annual gross sales of US$38 billion and net profits of US$8.4 billion, this humongous conglomerate has some 150,000 employees worldwide and businesses in movie making, network and cable television (including ABC and ESPN), theme parks, retail, food and beverage, merchandising, website (its Club Penguin online world is hugely popular with kids) and more. Headquartered in Burbank, California, this icon of imagination needs no introduction amongst children of all ages.

What is the secret of Disney's magic? The core of it, according to Capodagli and Jackson, is the 10 key management strategies underpinning Walt Disney's four-pillared philosophy of Dream, Believe, Dare and Do.


1. Give every member of your organisation a chance to dream, and tap into the creativity those dreams embody.

As an animator and a cartoonist, Walt Disney was adept at the art of visioning and storytelling, and he formed a group called "Imagineering" in the early 1950s to create new ideas and attractions.  One way to generate new possiblities is to organise "Dream Retreats" away from the hustle and bustle of the workplace. Dreams and visions should also secure the buy-in from all stakeholders.


2. Stand firm on your beliefs and principles.

One should ensure that everybody understands the vision, mission and values of an organisation and believe in it.  These should be formalised and communicated to all employees.  These principles should be long-term traditions such as the family values and wholesome entertainment which are still relevant (at least in its core brand products) in the Walt Disney company today.  Its mantra "Live your beliefs" provides a compass to all employees in delivering these precepts.

3. Treat your customers like guests.

The legendary customer service at Disney themeparks form the core of this strategy, where every visitor is treated like a guest in one's home.  Everybody - from the cleaning guy to the CEO - has to take personal responsibility in according hospitality to visitors, and this may even include picking up litter on the grounds.

Leading hotel chains are especially good at this and their mottos are often highly inspirational. They include the Ritz Carlton ("Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen") and Marriott hotels ("Go beyond").  To provide superior service, staff must be well-trained and empowered to innovate.  Service delivery processes would also need to be ironed out for this purpose.  Another oft heard saying that applies here is that the front line equals bottom line. In Disney, this isn't just a meaningless mantra but a way of life.

4. Support, empower, and reward employees.

Teamwork as encapsulated in the three musketeer's clarion call of "All for one and one for all" is a vital component of the Disney Way.  Everybody needs to work towards the greater good.  As Walt Disney himself said, "I don't propose to be an authority on anything at all.... I follow the opinions of ordinary people I meet, and I take pride in the close-knit teamwork of my organisation."  

To work well, teams should have a common focus, and could comprise cross-functional colleagues working together on a similar process.  Factors such as the physical layout of offices, rewards, information sharing, and group celebration can affect the unity and performance of teams.

5. Build long-term relationships with key suppliers and partners.

An extension of the earlier concept, forming strategic alliances with one's partners is key to Disney's success.  Over the years, Disney has leveraged on licensing and distribution agreements to grow its empire in win-win arrangements with retailers and distributors.  Employees should be encouraged to work closely with suppliers and to involve them in co-creating new products and services.  Partnerships also help to raise quality as suppliers would better understand how to meet one's standards.


6. Dare to take calculated risks in order to bring innovative ideas to fruition.

Risk taking is necessary in any entrepreneurial venture, and this philosophy was probably best captured by Michael Eisner's entry to Disney in 1984 as Chairman and CEO.  Although he has been ousted in 2005 in an ill-fated fashion, Eisner did contribute towards major developments in Disney like the successful launch of The Lion King musical which set new Broadway records.  

In this area, employees should be given the opportunity to develop and implement innovative ideas in all areas of their jobs, and off-site retreats involving cross-functional teams could be organised to reengineer products, processes and services.  While mistakes should be tolerated, opportunities for failure could be ameliorated by studying previous projects.


7. Train extensively and constantly reinforce the company’s culture.

To perform at a consistently high level, all Disney employees are trained and drilled at the Disney University.  Walt Disney himself was a perfectionist and demanded nothing less than the best.  Training should be offered to everybody involved in specific roles - not just managers alone - and it should move from imparting knowledge to developing the right attitudes, skills and ultimately habits in all "cast" members.  In developing one's human resources, development plans looking at how areas of weaknesses could be strengthened may also work better than performance appraisals.

8. Align long-term vision and short-term execution.

Project planning is key ("Fail to plan and plan to fail").  In Disney's parlance, projects should be managed through the following processes:
- Step 1: Blue sky (ideation)
  - Step 2: Concept development (research, evaluate alternatives, recommendation)
  - Step 3: Feasibility study (refine scope, do pro formas)
  - Step 4: Schematic (finalise master plan and outline processes)
  - Step 5: Design objectives (finalise design details, equipment and materials, plus implementation strategy and budget)
  - Step 6: Contract documents
  - Step 7: Production (site infrastructure, workareas, show elements etc)
  - Step 8: Install, test, adjust
  - Step 9: Close out (assemble final project documents, monitor performance)
  - Step 10 (from the authors): Celebrate a job well done!

Other than having a detailed process, project planning should also include the development of quick and inexpensive prototypes to test products, services or processes.

9. Use the story boarding technique to solve planning and communication problems.

This is a technique used in animation to communicate a proposed storyline which can be employed in the corporate world.  With an objective facilitator, storyboarding helps to elicit suggestions and inputs from all stakeholders involved, and be used to formalise and crystallise project plans.  It can also be employed for communication purposes and help everybody see the "big picture" more easily.

10. Pay close attention to detail.

Finally, the saying "God (or the devil?) is in the details." is truly apt in any organisational endeavour.  With an artist's eye, Walt Disney was obsessed with the intricate parts of his organisation.  To help his animators understand how penguins move, Disney once brought five live penguins into his studio!  Captured in the Japanese Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, paying attention to details involves understanding all the different customer touchpoints and seeing how they could be enhanced.  

While some of the facts in the book are outdated since its publication in 1998, its capturing of Disney's timeless principles of management are still useful to consider.  I find that it is extremely useful for those in the business of leisure - such as myself - who are constantly searching for the best way to weave magic into our attractions.  Highly recommended.

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