Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Business of Change

            As I believe I’ve mentioned before Ava has a particular interest in things related to Walt Disney World. Her family made numerous trips down to Orlando during her teenage years and in the process of figuring out the best ways to do everything, they learned a tremendous amount about the operations and logistics of all the resorts and theme parks encompassed within the Disney World territory. Over the last twenty-five years, she has watched rides, hotels, and parks come and go. She has read travel guides and insider accounts. She can see all the trends and management decisions both good and bad written into the materiality of the resort. For her Disney World is less a playground than a grand cultural text whose dynamics reflect the mood of our times.
            In this spirit we both read with interest an article from the May issue of Fast Company about the creation and implementation of a new organizing technology within the Disney World resort. Called the Next Generation Experience (NGE) in the text, this revolution in how visitors experienced the parks and hotels of Disney World was supposed to be built around an electronic wristband that would serve as a catch-all tool for everything one might want to do. It would open hotel room doors, generate FastPass times, purchase merchandise, order food, and more. It would also enable Disney to track park attendees and manage crowds more effectively, thus improving visitor experiences and boosting the numbers of people each theme park could reasonably handle. It was going to be the thing that brought the Disney World experience into the twenty-first century.
            What comes out of the Fast Company article is that the NGE project underwent a fairly ordinary trajectory wherein a huge, innovative idea gets watered down to a rather pedestrian set of final results. The article touches on some of the numerous conflicts that emerged between different groups during the company’s attempts to imagine what was possible and ultimately assemble what was needed to bring those ideas to fruition. While the article doesn’t claim that the project was doomed from the beginning, there is a sense throughout the piece that this kind of whittling away at the concept as a whole was kind of inevitable. It’s what happens when big companies try to fundamentally change the way they do things. There’s lots of tension and lots of trouble, and the final result never lives up to its original hype.
            What I found interesting in this piece and the reason I wanted to write about it is that it seems to be that there was one fundamental flaw in the whole re-invention process. In 2008 a team of five executives was given the charge of outlining what NGE was going to be. It was to be their responsibility to “reinvent the vacation experience” at Disney World. This charge was given in strict secrecy and much of the conceptual brainstorming appears to have taken place in conjunction with consultants outside of Disney. But, as the author wryly notes later in the article, “It’s impossible, of course, for such a big project to remain secret.” When the word got out, the pushback came fast and furious. People were fighting to protect their creative visions. People were fighting to protect their jobs. There was constant conflict between outside contractors and internal departments. There was bickering back and forth over who should get what monies and which groups should control various aspects of the new plan. A classic tussle broke out between entrenched interests and new ideas, insiders and outsiders, the winners and the losers in the process of change.
            But it didn’t have to be that way. Or at the very least there was something that could have been done at the very beginning to head off a great deal of the pushback: get rid of the secrecy. People get upset when they feel as if the rug is getting pulled out from under them. People fight back when they don’t feel like they are part of the process. People resist change if they feel like it’s happening without their input. The biggest mistake the executives at Disney made in trying to re-invent the way they run the Disney World resort was to try and keep that goal a secret from the very people who knew the resort the best: their own employees.
            For an example of how Disney executives (and any other organization looking to undertake a significant change) might have better pursued this kind of revolutionary change in their business practice, they would not have had to look very far. In his book Creativity, Inc. about his experiences as the president of Pixar Animation – now a division of Disney itself, Ed Catmull discussed a situation in which the company needed to significantly rework its operating processes in order to meet certain budget requirements. After some deliberation, the executive team decided that instead of mandating cuts in various departments they would take the problem itself to the company as a whole. They organized what came to be called Notes Day where all the company’s employees came together to brainstorm and discuss various ideas for enhancing efficiency and smoothing out the different operational systems within the company. This effort required a tremendous amount of organizational dedication in order to sift through the various ideas, gather them into different groups, put people together to talk through them and come up with a list of legitimate possibilities and priorities to pursue. However, in Catmull’s opinion this investment was incalculably useful. Not only did it produce numerous ideas that the executive team had not considered, it enhanced personal contacts across the company and gave the employees an intellectual stake in the future of their workplace. It also gave the company’s leaders a better sense of what things mattered most to their employees and how they might work with those values as they sought to achieve the necessary budgetary alignments. All of this reduced the amount and vehemence of pushback against the changes that were to come and made people better aware of the issues involved in the difficult choices that had to be made.
            I wonder what would have happened if Disney had done the same.


            As a parent I think there are at least two big messages in the contrast between these approaches to large-scale change. The first is the concept of leadership. People often view a leader as the person who tells everyone else what to do. Our cultural image of a leader is someone who has a vision and organizes others to bring that vision to life. This general-on-the-battlefield version of leadership is how the executives at Disney saw their role in developing the NGE. But what Catmull and the folks at Pixar showed is that really good leadership, the kind necessary to successfully make dramatic change happen, is a matter of tapping into the breadth of knowledge around you and giving people an intellectual stake in projects that will affect them. The leader’s role is to facilitate these interactions and provide the necessary direction to turn the ideas they produce into material results. The difference is subtle but one worth remembering whether we’re talking about big companies or small families.

            The second message is about investment in people. Investing in people is hard, time-consuming, and difficult to quantify. There’s no graph you can make to show a specific correlation between the amount of resources invested in a person and the output one receives from that investment. Instead it has to be taken as an article of faith. But that investment matters. I think about this constantly as Ava and I work with Polly and Pip. So much of what they are capable of doing now – their reading and math skills, their respect for others, their work ethic, their sensitivity to the feelings of those around them, their kindness, their responsiveness to our instructions – are the result of years of patient guidance and training. This time invested in them also means that we all have good understandings of what to expect from each other and what things matter to each other. The kids know we will listen to them and take their thoughts into account and that we expect them to do the same for us. This means we know how to approach a problem when something has to change, and there is less pushback when something doesn’t go their way. It seems to me that this is what Pixar managed to do well and something at which the executives at Disney, despite all their claims to a collaborative work environment, failed miserably.

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