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Diversity is Innovation

Much has been written about the benefits of diversity within an organization since companies, for many years, considered it the “politically correct” thing to do. As head of Innovation and Creativity for the Walt Disney Company, I learned the real power of diversity was helping organizations navigate outside their own entrenched “River of Thinking.” Like any large quantity of flowing substances, once a path is established it can be hard to break out of a limiting pattern. The same is true with a flow of ideas from people bound by their own experience. Bringing people together through diversity of thought is what allows new and innovative ideas to be born.

Steve Jobs designed the creative campus at Pixar around the principle of Diversity of Thought. Its foundation was built upon the concept of “unplanned collaboration” – the bringing of people together who would not normally meet and having conversations they didn’t expect to have–parking new thinking and fresh ideas.

I piloted several forums at the Walt Disney Company leveraging the concept of “Naive Experts,” specifically designed to encourage that same Diversity of Thought. Naive Experts are individuals who are NOT experts in a particular area or subject. When included in Ideation Forums, they inevitably ask the naive or provocative questions and will often arrive at an “Audacious Idea” well before the “experts.” Indeed, quite often leading “experts,” stuck in their own “River of Thinking,” can be one of the largest obstacles to true innovation.

We saw the power of these fresh catalysts in two challenges we tackled for the Disney Parks division.

The first was a project to design a new retail, dining and entertainment experience for the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. Since the participants were Disney Imagineers (Architects and Engineers), I brought in the executive chef as a Naive Expert. At the beginning of the session, I gave everyone ten seconds to draw a house. When they revealed their sketches, they were identical. They had all stayed in their “River of Thinking,” and produced the typical visual – square box, four windows with cross panes, a front door placed right in the middle and a triangle for a roof. 

But the executive chef from Hong Kong Disneyland had chosen to draw “Dim Sum” architecture, which resembled giant steamed shrimp dim sum sitting on top of a wicker basket, complete with windows and a chimney. Without any preconceived limits, he gave the Imagineers permission to get out of their “River of Thinking” and think differently about the concept of architecture. His illustration later became the inspiration for the entire strategic brand positioning for the Shanghai Disney Resort; “Distinctly Disney, Authentically Chinese.”

In the second project we brought together a group of consumers to talk about improving the Disney Park experience. Unsurprisingly, the subject of standing in line came up as a key barrier to the magic of a visit. One of the Naive Experts in the room asked the audacious question, “What if there were no gates at the front of each Disney Park?” Immediately we asked, how might we eliminate the lines for favorite attractions, meeting a Disney Character and checking in to the hotels? What If guests didn’t have to stand in line to pay for merchandise or fast food? 

Out of the initial workshop with the Naive Experts, we commissioned a team to look into the potential of RFID technology, which in turn led to the idea of Disney’s Magic Band. The band is now worn by millions of guests each year. It enables everyone to open their hotel room without the need to check in as the band acts as their room key. There are no longer any gates at the front of each park, just an RFID scanner. The Magic Bands hold reservations for guests at their favorite attractions and to meet their favorite characters. They also act as a credit card for any purchase on site, having the items delivered to a hotel room or shipped home. At fast food restaurants, you can place a food order on your smartphone before arriving. On entering the restaurant, the RFID enabled technology locates each guest and delivers the food directly to their table. Not only does it allow guests to spend more time enjoying their trip, but it also enables the team to adjust park operations in real time and provides a path for future engagement with guests as potential new products and services are designed.

Leveraging Diversity of Thought through Naive Experts will rarely provide a complete solution, but they will spark new points of view around a given challenge, enabling established experts to break out of their customary Rivers of Thinking, to develop really innovative ideas.

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