The Disney Creative Strategy

Fusing Imagination and Planning

The Disney Creative Strategy - Fusing Imagination and Planning

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Turn your dreams into reality.

When it comes to creative planning, it can be hard to find the right way to transform imaginative thinking into concrete business strategy. You need to dream big in order to come up with possible ways of solving a particular problem. At the same time, you need to be able to focus on the detail needed to put your plan into action successfully.

Getting the right balance between these two aspects is a real challenge, but you can learn a lot about how to do just that from one man, who not only mastered the technique, but used it to create a legendary billion-dollar empire.

When you hear the name "Walt Disney" what comes to your mind? For lots of people it will be that famous animated mouse he created, and the joy he's brought to millions of people through his films. But many consider Walt Disney to have been just as much a business genius as a creative one. Closer inspection shows that much of his success was thanks to having a very specific approach to realizing his dreams.

Known as the Disney Creative Strategy, it was originally formulated by Robert Dilts, a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) expert. One of the goals of NLP is to model the thinking strategies of successful people. Dilts defined this particular strategy after analyzing Disney's methods for turning his dreams into reality. He details the strategy in his book, "Strategies of Genius: Volume One," published in 1995.

In this article we'll explain the Disney Creative Strategy, and show how you can use it to realize your own ideas.

The Disney Creative Strategy

The Disney Creative Strategy is a tool for brainstorming and developing ideas. It involves using three sequential roles, or thought processes, namely the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic.

As you imagine and develop your ideas, you move from one role to the next, putting yourself into these different mindsets, so that you can better analyze what you're doing.

Below are the essential elements associated with each role:

  1. The Dreamer

    Taking on the Dreamer role in this first phase, you and your group focus on free association and brainstorming of ideas. Anything goes here. It's your chance to let your imagination run wild!

  2. The Realist

    Next, it's time to be realistic and decide which of your ideas are actually possible or practical. What would you need to do in the real world in order to make them happen?

  3. The Critic

    Here you need to examine your chosen proposal and its real world implications from a more critical viewpoint. You want to make sure that your plan is as comprehensive as it can be. Every detail needs to be scrutinized and refined.

Sound planning requires innovators to take on all three roles, and work through them in order. Some of your team members may be more naturally disposed to one or other role, and you need to make sure you balance the process so that all roles are used. Not enough emphasis on The Critic phase may mean you produce unrealistic proposals that are doomed to fail. Equally, if you skip The Dreamer stage, your plans could well lack the imagination needed for true innovation to take place.

It's likely that you'll only be really successful in your planning when you work through all three roles in the correct sequence.

How to Use the Tool

So, how do you actually use the Disney Creative Strategy?

Step 1: Create Space

If you have the space, it can be helpful to use a different room or space within a room for each phase. This will help you and your team to switch mindsets and move into each different role. And it's also vital that someone is in charge of documenting each stage.

Step 2: Step Into The Dreamer

Once you've gathered your team, make sure everyone is clear that you're starting with The Dreamer role. Each person should feel free to brainstorm and bounce ideas around during this time. Don't introduce any limitations here. Avoid mentioning budgets, time frames or rules. If you and your team could do anything with this project, what would you most want to do? What ideas really excite you?

Step 3: Transition to The Realist

Once you've given everyone plenty of time to brainstorm ideas, it's time to switch into The Realist role.

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In this phase you're going to refine and adjust your ideas to make them more concrete. This is when your team will focus on taking action: planning, scheduling and evaluating the idea or ideas they find most promising.

Step 4: Transition to The Critic

In this last phase you and your team must look at your ideas from a critical point of view. You need to question and test every step of the process, pretending you're a "naysayer", and trying to find fault with any proposition. Your goal is to criticize and refine your plan until it's as good as you can get it.

Make sure you allow enough time at each stage for ideas to fully develop. Moving from one phase to the next too quickly can stifle people's imagination.


It's also especially important that, during The Critic phase, you and your team remember to criticize the plan itself, and not the person or people coming up with the ideas!

Example: Disney Creative Strategy in Action

Diane Austin works for a young organization. The firm has been growing rapidly since it was founded just five years ago, and now has more than 100 employees.

The problem, as she sees it, is that there is no system in place that allows everyone to share their know-how. She's keen to introduce knowledge management to her firm, as she believes this could significantly increase retention and revenue over the long term. She needs to create and implement a user-friendly system for sharing and spreading this collective knowledge.

Diane decides to try out the Disney Creative Strategy with her team, in order to create a system that will work for everyone. With her boss's approval, she's able to use three different conference rooms for the initial meetings.

She explains to her team exactly how she's going to structure the meetings. And during the first one the team steps into the role of The Dreamer. Diane functions as the moderator, documenting ideas and guiding the discussion. She writes down all the suggestions, and encourages everyone to participate. No idea is considered too far-fetched or unrealistic at this stage, and her team really gets into the excitement of being able to shout out everything they can come up with.

After a 15 minute break the team moves to the next room, where they're instructed to step into the role of The Realist. It's time to consider how practical the ideas they came up with during the first phase are in reality. These included setting up a new part of the company intranet for storing relevant information; "lunch and learn" sessions; the appointment of a knowledge champion, who would spend time holding group discussions to identify knowledge that could usefully be shared; and the creation of a system of cross-team "knowledge buddies".

Considering these four proposals to be the most solid and practical, they then create a rough plan for realizing each idea. At this point they decide to discard the knowledge champion idea as it's too expensive, and depends too much on one person rather than on a more sustainable, collective effort. Step-by-step implementation plans are created for the remaining three ideas.

Diane gives the group another 15 minute break, and then they move to the third conference room to take on the role of The Critic. Here, she and the group look at each plan from the point of view of a skeptical outsider. Every step is analyzed, picked apart, and refined.

As a result, Diane and her team are able to come up with a solid, well thought out plan for introducing a knowledge management system into the organization.


The steps laid out here are similar to a number of other approaches to creative problem solving. See our Introduction to Problem Solving, and our articles on Simplex and Six Thinking Hats for more.

Key Points

Balancing the conflicting roles of Dreamer, Realist, and Critic can be a challenge for teams. All three elements are necessary for successful project planning, but they need to be addressed in the right order. Teams can easily fall into the trap of trying to do all three at once!

By using the Disney Creative Strategy you can clearly separate these roles, and devote time to each. When each role is defined and set apart, teams can focus on doing one task at a time. This will greatly increase the chances of your planning being realistic, innovative and successful.