disney's creativity strategies

Professionals from all walks of life can learn how to increase their effectiveness in communication, problem solving, and strategic planning by modeling the creative genius of Walt Disney. The theories and models presented in this paper are based on Neuro Linguistic Programming. Introduction Walt Disney was one of the world's all time creative geniuses. By applying his imagination and marketing savvy, he was able to create an empire based on cartoon characters and mythical environments. His methods for producing some of the world's most loved characters can be understood if we look at two different aspects of his creativity.

First, we need to know how his brain worked. Which cognitive strategies did he use to come up with ideas? And, secondly, what types of techniques did he use to document and communicate these creative ideas? Disney's creative success was two-fold. He had the capability to discover new relationships, look at subjects from new perspectives, and form new combinations from two or more elements. His creativity resulted in the uncovering of technologies that lead to new business ideas. One of those ideas was the story board. Disney had the mental capacity to create great ideas, the objectivity to analyze his work and plan for action, and the story board to document and communicate the ideas. As human beings, we all have the ability to be creative. It is just another behavior strategy that we can choose. In reality, we can be more creative by choosing to be. The secret is knowing you have the choice and having other behaviors to choose from. Creativity is a human strategy for dealing with reality. Why is it that some people seem to be more creative than others? We all have the ability to be creative; however, some of us just know how to do it better than others. It's the "know how" part of creativity that has become the subject of research on personal excellence.

One of the leading technologies based on creating personal excellence, is the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP is also based on the psychological models of Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, the communication models of Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson, one of the world's greatest hypnotists. Robert Dilts, a cofounder, avid researcher, and author in the field of NLP, studies the cognitive strategies of geniuses and then creates models of how they thought. Some of the people studied by Dilts have been Mozart, Gregory Bateson, Einstein, and Walt Disney. "A first step in improving the creative process is recognizing, acknowledging, and respecting it when it is happening." (Dilts, Epstein, Dilts, 1991, 145.) By using the technology associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Dilts has been able to study, document, and teach others how to achieve states of excellence.

Cognitive Strategies In NLP terms, refers to the mental process or program (in the sense of a computer program) that creates a specific outcome. Each step in a cognitive strategy is characterized by the use of one or more of the five senses; sight, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling. In order to replicate a cognitive strategy, you need to recognize it, attach some meaning to it, and analyze the information around other strategies. The three cognitive strategies of human behavior found in the Disney Creativity Model are: - motivation, - spatial relationships, and - time relationships. Walt Disney's cognitive strategy consisted of three phases, the "Dreamer Phase," the "Critic Phase," and the "Realist Phase." The "Dreamer Phase" allowed for the creation of ideas. The "Critic Phase" analyzed the ideas, and the "Realist Phase" planned the innovation. Stories tell us that Disney's staff would never know which phase he would be in for a meeting. He would sometimes shift into these different perceptual positions very quickly until he was ready to share his thinking with co-workers. Each phase had associated orientations, representational systems approaches, references, and time elements. His abilities to shift perceptual focus while looking at a creative challenge, gave way to his tremendous success.

When we study creativity, it is also important to understand what the brain is doing at a physiological level. Creative people have some very distinct characteristics. First, they use both sides of their brains to generate ideas. Everyone has the ability to use both sides of their brains, we just have preferences for using one over the other. Left brain thinking is characterized by logical, analytical, and mathematical thinking, whereas right brain thinking is characterized by intuition, insight, and visualizing. People who are working in a creative mode rely heavily on their ability to utilize visualization. Creating an environment that is highly visual helps to spark creativity. Disney's concept of the story board to display information was highly visual. In my opinion as a professional team facilitator, one of his greatest successes, right up there with Mickey and Donald, was his use of the story board to document the creative process.

Story boarding

Story boarding is a technique developed by Disney in 1928. He needed to achieve full animation in cartoon features, something that no one else had accomplished. Creating a full feature cartoon meant that he and his staff had to create thousands and thousands of drawings. In order to keep all the cartoon drawings straight, and to give his staff a clear picture of what was going on in the story, he created the story board. Disney's story board was basically a wall where all the drawings were arranged in sequential order and then pinned up. It worked great! The story could be planned, seen visually, and pieces of the cartoon could be unpinned and moved around on the wall. Editing the cartoon became relatively easy because team members were able to move pieces of the story around. In his book entitled, "101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques," Higgins adapted Disney's basic ideas in a more comprehensive approach to planning that can be used for team meetings.

The story board is organized by four different header topics: - topic headers, - purpose headers, - miscellaneous headers, and - content headers. The "Topic Header" identifies the problem or issue. The "Purpose Header" defines why the team cares to explore the issue. Next, the "Miscellaneous Header," placed at the far right end of the board, gathers information that doesn't fit into any other header but the team feels is important and does not want to lose. The team then brainstorms all possible ideas related to the "Topic Header," prioritizes the list, and chooses the top five to seven as "Content Headers." Higgins suggests four different stages in a story boarding process: 1) a planning board, 2) an ideas board, 3) an organization board, and finally, 4) a communications board. Combining these two ideas, Disney's cognitive strategy and story boarding, in a team session can produce exquisite results. The steps a facilitator can take for leading a workshop like this are outlined on the next page. Guidelines for a Disney Creativity Strategy Session 1. Introduce the group to the concepts of story boarding, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and Disney's cognitive strategies: dreamer, critic, and realist. 2. Ask the group to identify the topic. Using flip chart paper, write the topic on a half-sheet of paper and tape it to the wall. This is the "Topic Header." 3. On a piece of flip-chart paper, add the headers of "Purpose" and "Miscellaneous." Brainstorm with the group the reason they are involved in discussing this issue. Add these items under the "Purpose Header." Explain that the "Miscellaneous Header" will capture information that is important to the group, but may not fit under any other headers. 4. Brainstorm a list of content areas related to the main issue. Ask the group to prioritize the information. Use a Nominal Group Technique (group voting for the top 5 - 7 items) to prioritize the list. 5. The top 5 - 7 ideas become the team's "Content Headers." Write them on a half-sheet of flip chart paper, and tape them to the wall. Tape extra flip chart paper under each of the "Content Headers" to prepare for the first round of creativity. 6. Facilitate a brainstorming session in the "Dreamer Phase." Information is captured on the flip chart paper taped under each of the "Content Headers." In rounds 2 and 3 (the "Critic Phase" and the "Realist Phase"), all of the headers will be reused.

However, new flip chart paper will be needed under each "Content Header" in order to capture new ideas happening in each phase.  The team facilitator needs to bring training props that spark creativity. Koosh balls are wonderful. Slinkees excite both sides of the brain, however they can be annoying when someone is trying to talk and a team member is slinking his or her Slinkee. Colored markers that have associated smells are a must, because they excite our olfactory sense--smell. Sessions are great fun and should be facilitated as such. Another important key to this type of mass story board is making sure to number or code each piece of flip chart paper so that when the team has finished, they know which information goes where. By marrying Disney's cognitive strategy to a tool like story boarding, teams are able to produce very creative ideas. Team facilitators have caught on to the concept of story boarding and use it to create, analyze, and plan activities.


  • Dilts, R., Dilts R.W., Epstein, T. Tools for Dreamers. California, Meta Publications, 1991.
  • Harary, K. Right-Brain Learning in 30 Days. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
  • Higgins, J. 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques. Florida, New Management Publishing Company, 1994.
  • O'Connor, Joseph and Seymour, John. Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming. London: Mandala, 1990.
  • Richardson, Jerry. The Magic of Rapport. California: Meta Communications, 1987.

organizational change

Management's top priority is planning and ensuring that everyone is working on key business objectives.  IMPACTure helps organizations in the design and development of strategies for change and continuous improvement.

Working with executive management teams, IMPACTure facilitates group understanding of the competition, the current environment, and what it will take to become a top performing organization.

We know that change cannot take place unless the organization has a strong strategic focus, listens to their customers and encourages team work.