In my last blog post, Listen to the Right People, and Trust Yourself in a Crisis, I wrote about listening to the right people. By the right people, I referred to those with experience and credibility.
While that is good general advice and certainly true for gathering information in times of crisis, the focus on who the right people are may shift slightly when you are in need of creative thinking. I recently read an article on fastcompany.com, How Disney’s Imagineers Keep the Magic Ideas Coming. It was an interview with Peter Rummell, who served as chairman of Disney’s Imagineers, from 1985 to 1997.
If there was ever a company that thrives on creative thinking, it’s Disney. It may have all started with a mouse, as Walt Disney famously said, but that mouse has evolved into a $45 billion company. And as Disney also said, “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.”
That constant focus on the future means the Disney team has to constantly be fostering creative ideas. Rummell says that one of the most important lessons he learned is that the best and most creative ideas don’t necessarily come from the smartest, most educated people in the room. He liked to build teams with a variety of people on them. “It doesn’t mean you load the room up with idiots. But IQ, and fancy education, and that kind of thing, is not an automatic pre-requisite to success,” he said.
Scientists have been studying how this process of creativity works. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, science writer Jonah Lehrer explores how innovation originates and what companies are doing to create the best environments to support creativity.
One of his findings is that sometimes outsiders can be helpful, even in a situation where you think you would need the most educated person. In an interview with NPR.org, he said, “In many cases, when you’re trying to solve a technical problem, our assumption is that we should give it to the guy who knows the most – the ultimate insider, the expert in that field. But what various studies and real-world studies have shown, is that it’s often the outsiders who do better: people on the fringes of that field — people who know enough to understand the question but don’t know enough that they’re going to run into the same stumbling blocks as the people on the inside who have already tried to solve it.”
And that’s where I often come in, as the turnaround authority. I am brought into companies where I don’t necessarily know that particular business. That often serves me well as I am not hampered by the same obstacles that others so mired in the business are. It can be in those situations that I am able to do my most creative problem solving.
One of the best examples of this is when I was being interviewed to help restructure Retama Park, a horseracing track. Someone in the meeting pointed out that it was a drawback that I had no horseracing experience. I politely pointed out that between the president, general manager, directors and senior officials, they had more 200 years of combined experience. Yet, they were on the verge of defaulting on a $100 million loan, had lost more than $25 million in the past two years and were teetering on bankruptcy. I suggested maybe someone from the outside was exactly what they needed, and that while I didn’t even know the correct side to mount a horse, I didn’t need to know that to run the business. I was hired.
I’ve learned to always be open to creative, new ideas, and entertain just about any concept, no matter how wacky it may seem. Rummell tells the story of the genesis of Blizzard Beach, a water park in Orlando that opened in 1995 and hosted close to two million guests last year.
The Imagineers were brainstorming but unable to come up with any viable ideas. Then one of them walked to the bathroom, right past a cubicle with snow globes. That led to the development of the winter themed Blizzard Beach, partly because no one laughed at his idea of a snowstorm in central Florida.
Creative ideas come from everywhere. Be open to all of them. Expertise doesn’t always get you the creative thinking you need and it can pay to listen to someone outside the company, whose ignorance about the details of your business can actually work to your advantage.
The Turnaround Management Association is hosting its 9th annual Southeast Regional Conference at the historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel May 29-30. I’ll be on a workout panel, called Titans of the Turnaround. Hope you can join me at this fun and informative event!