Lessons from Disney on succeeding in changing times

Mar 29 2012 by Robert Kulhan Print This Article

Disney is set to unveil its fourth cruise ship at the end of this month: the Disney Fantasy. It comes at an uncertain time for the cruising industry. Little did Disney executives know at the time when they began implementing the operation that many consumers would become skeptical about a sea-worthy vacation in the wake of the Costa Concordia capsizing in Italy earlier this year. Recent reports that 22 Carnival Cruise Lines passengers were robbed while on an excursion to the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta has only contributed to further skepticism.

How could Disney have prepared for such unforeseen events? The reality is that life – and business – is full of unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes the unexpected is a challenge; other times it is an opportunity. The trick for all enlightened leaders is to know the difference.

This happens through mastery in the following five areas of improvisational leadership: suspending judgment, managing attitude, reacting and adapting, taking risks, and learning and practicing.

Tip 1. Suspending Judgment
From afar, Disney seems to have exercised suspension of judgment by first acknowledging what happened with the Costa Concordia and then objectively looking at the situation and relating it to their strategy. Rather than focusing on promoting the cruising aspect of their new line, Disney instead emphasized their brand value of family entertainment.

Many leaders are taught to be critical thinkers. The challenge is that often critical thinking faculties are exercised too quickly, and unexpected twists or turns lead to knee-jerk reactions, before time is taken to review what happened or explore the situation's potential.

A suspension of judgment is different than an abandonment of judgment. Great improvisational leaders keep their minds open to possibilities, the thoughtful perspective of others, and inspiration! They make objective decisions based on all the information they have at their disposal. In other words, they suspend judgment long enough to understand the unexpected and explore all possibilities.

Tip 2. Managing Attitude
According to those who worked directly with him, Walt Disney hated the word "no!" His perspective was "tell me how we are going to make this idea work," an attitude that is still evident at Disney today.

The simple truth is that we affect each other in positive and negative ways, and attitude is an enormous part of how you manage the unexpected. The improv phrase "Yes, and…" is a tool used to train your brain to frame your thoughts in a positive way (as well as a phrase used to suspend judgment).

It is easy to say "this will not work." That definitive statement is short, fast and may in fact prevent you from succeeding but, more importantly, it may also prevent you from taking risks. Possibilities lie in the unknown. If you train your brain to frame your thinking around "How can I use this?" or "Is there anything I can use from this?" you increase your chances of finding success in the unexpected.

Tip 3. Reacting and Adapting
Disney's reaction to the Costa Concordia and messaging around its new cruise line was subtle. The company was in essence "thinking slow and moving fast."

This is a popular improv phrase suggesting that the brain often moves too quickly and we miss details in life. Great improvisers train their brains to recognize opportunities as they arise and become flexible enough to take advantage of them and adapt in real-time. This is much like "The Zone" that elite athletes, chefs and high-level performers describe.

The ability to react and adapt requires you to be present, in the moment, and not over-think. It is about allowing your natural intelligence to rise to the surface to aid in recognition and response. Reacting and adapting is about acting on intuition – derived from knowledge and training – and then remaining nimble enough to make the changes needed to achieve your desired outcome. This starts with a suspension of judgment.

Tip 4. Taking Risk
Disney knew its decision to move forward was not without risk or uncertainty. However, Disney has a history of risk-taking: back in 1998 they became the first cruise line to purchase and create a private island – the very popular "Castaway Cay".

Improvisational leaders need to take chances and seize unexpected opportunities when they arise. It takes courage to react to these unexpected opportunities and adapt to make them work for you. Moderate failure is okay as long as you learn from it (and don't make the same mistake twice).

Tip 5. Learning and Practicing
Disney has created a culture of nimbleness, allowing them to learn how to adapt and then practice mastering the art of managing the unexpected.

Many people believe the ability to suspend judgment, display a positive attitude, react and adapt, and take risks are light switches that they can flip at a moment's notice. For the majority, this is 100% incorrect. Improvisational leaders know it takes time and practice to learn how to use this skill set and succeed. Therefore, take time in a few meetings to run through some unexpected scenarios.

Force yourself and your colleagues to suspend judgment, take risks, and react and adapt so that when the real unexpected scenario arises, you have the comfort and confidence to make it work for your team.

Despite the uncertainty, Disney is plugging ahead even if it doesn't expect its initial Disney Fantasy cruise offering to be filled to capacity. Whether it is Disney today, or your organization tomorrow, we need to improvise and embrace the unexpected. In it lie the opportunities to outpace your competition.


About The Author

Robert Kulhan
Robert Kulhan

Robert Kulhan is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the co-director of its Managing the Unexpected executive education program. He is also the CEO of Business Improvisations LLC.