"Massive companies, ones we’ve grown up with and always thought couldn’t possibly fold, will be out of business in the next 10 years.”

So predicts former Disney stalwart Duncan Wardle, who is on a mission to prevent this from happening to as many companies as possible. He does so by delivering workshops and speeches and offering consultancy work to brands and organisations looking to improve, innovate and not only survive the impending tidal wave of disruption, but thrive on it.

Mr Wardle said innovation had been a buzzword in business for many years and every CEO in the world wanted their company to be innovative, but many didn’t know how to do it.

“Nobody has made innovation tangible for them,” Mr Wardle said. “The consultants come in, run projects and deliver good recommendations with good return on investment, but they’re not teaching companies how to change culture so they can do it for themselves.”

This was one of the reasons Mr Wardle decided to leave Disney shortly after being awarded a bronze statue of Jiminy Cricket in recognition of his 30 years with the iconic company.

Mr Wardle spent his first 20 years at the studio working in public relations before rising to Vice-President of Innovation and Creativity.

“The chairman of Disney Parks turned to me 10 years ago and said ‘you’re the guy with all the big ideas, you’re going to be in charge of innovation and creativity’, to which my exact response was, ‘what is that and how do I find out?’ he said.

“He simply said, ‘I don’t know, go figure it out’.”

That was exactly what Mr Wardle did, starting by surveying 5000 people across the company and asking them what the biggest barriers to innovation and creativity were.

The responses revealed five major barriers:
  1.  A lack of time to be creative/innovative.
  2.  No common definition of innovation or creativity.
  3.  Ideas getting stuck, diluted or killed off as they moved through the organisation.
  4.  Consumer insight was being underused because most of the organisation had not met a consumer.
  5.  The company was a risk-averse organisation, more worried about quarterly results than the big picture.

Mr Wardle put together a toolkit to combat each of the barriers and this eventually became his Theory of Creativity, which is the basis of his current work.

“I’m a firm believer that everybody is creative. I don’t go for the ‘oh so-and-so isn’t creative’. It’s just that so many of us have been told so often that we are not and we end up believing it,” he said.

“It’s about giving people the toolkit to go out and be creative again, like we were when we were children.”

Since leaving Disney, Mr Wardle has racked up a healthy contingent of big name brands he has helped, including Coca-Cola, Ford and Forbes, but said offering his time for free had been the most rewarding.

He picks one or two not-for-profits to help each year.

“I was a kid in a candy store for 30 years – I worked for The Walt Disney Company in Hong Kong, Mumbai, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Florida and Shanghai – and now it’s just a chance to give a little bit back,” he said.

“I thoroughly enjoy these free events because that’s my ‘why’. That’s why I do what I do; I get amazing letters from people saying ‘you’ve changed my career’, ‘you’ve changed my outlook on life’, and that’s the reward.”

Lessons for the future

During his time with Disney Mr Wardle was responsible for a number of large projects and marketing initiatives. He was behind a team-up with NASA to send an action figure of Buzz Lightyear – the space ranger character from Disney’s Toy Story movies – into space to advertise the opening of the studio’s Toy Story Mania attraction. He was also the mastermind behind the installation of an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the Magic Kingdom Park for Michael Phelps to swim in.

Despite the impressive nature of these projects, Mr Wardle said his proudest moment working for Disney drew much less spectacle and limelight. 

“I helped to turn Disney’s very product-centric culture into a consumer-centric one,” he said.

This achievement was reflected in the company’s effort to entice more people to visit Disneyland Paris. Going in, Mr Wardle said the hypothesis was to spend tens of millions of dollars on new attractions to bring more people into the park. By the end of the project, Mr Wardle discovered something completely different.

“We found out parents do not wake up every morning worrying whether or not a Disney park is going to have a new attraction,” he said.

“What they wake up worrying about is how quickly their children are growing up and how they want to make special memories together before the children get too old.”

Mr Wardle came to this conclusion by visiting the homes of 26 consumers. By doing so they were able to delve deeper into the issues that were really affecting their consumers and use their intuition.

“Intuition is an incredibly powerful tool,” Mr Wardle said. “You have four billion neurons in your brain, but this is nowhere near as many as you have in your gut, which is why it’s called the second brain – it is a remarkably powerful tool.”

Intuition, Mr Wardle said, was one of four elements that would be the differentiator between humans and artificial intelligence (AI). The other three elements are imagination, creativity and curiosity. 

“We’re all born with those skillsets, and in the next decade they will become the most important ones because they’ll be the ones AI won’t be able to replicate,” he said.

“It’s about teaching people to think like children think. Children think expansively, they think ‘how might we’; adults think reductively, they think ‘how can we’. 

“Don’t be afraid to question things and definitely don’t be afraid to trust your gut.”

Theory of creativity

Mr Wardle’s Theory of Creativity is based around allowing people to incorporate innovation and creativity in their work life and enhance the impact they have.

“If you want to change a culture, you have to create tools that are easy and fun for people to use,” he said.

“People only use things if they’re easy and fun, otherwise they’ll go through the training to learn the tools and then they’ll completely ignore them."

As part of his Theory of Creativity, Mr Wardle encourages people to be child-like and playful in the workplace.

“I’m not advocating for people to be playful every minute of every day – you wouldn’t get anything done – but when you’re trying to have big ideas you do need to be playful,” he said.

“The moment you relax, the moment you’re playful, the door between your conscious and sub-conscious brain opens just enough so it allows you to make conscious decisions, but still have a big idea – that’s the importance of being playful.

“As a leader you need to be playful at the right time because that’s how you can help people get to their sub-conscious and have enormous ideas.”

Another aspect of being innovative and creative, according to Mr Wardle, is being given the time to think and allowing ideas to flourish. Google is a prime example of this.

“As a result they came up with Gmail, Google Goggles and Google Maps, all fairly successful products,” he said.

In addition to being given time to think, Mr Wardle said people needed to think differently. For most people, their own expertise and experience – or ‘river of thinking’ – was a big barrier to innovation.

“The more experience and expertise you get in whatever industry you work in, the more reasons you know why an idea won’t work,” he said.

“Instead of considering how something might work, we think it won’t work because of x, and that is very destructive for new ideas. 

“If you just stop for a moment and use a series of lateral thinking tools you can easily get out of your river of thinking.”

The key to these lateral thinking tools is being able to look at the same situation in a different light. There are a number of different tools that can be used to remove someone from their river of thinking, but some of the more interesting ones include the introduction of a naive expert, reframing the challenge and asking ‘what if?’. 

A naive expert is someone completely unrelated to your problem.

On one occasion, Mr Wardle asked a group of architects and a head chef from one of the Disneyland resorts to draw a house in seven seconds. All of the architects drew a square house with a triangle roof and windows with crosses through them. The head chef, on the other hand, drew dim sum architecture, which was made up of a bamboo steamer and pieces of dim sum as the different elements.

Mr Wardle said a naive expert allowed you to get away from your river of thinking because they asked the questions often thought too obvious to consider.

Re-framing the challenge is simply referring to a situation in a slightly different way and watching the effect it can have.

An example of this can be seen through Walt Disney’s decision to call employees cast members who wear costumes rather than uniforms and serve guests rather than customers.

“Simply by re-expressing a challenge, the level of care is instantly heightened; think about how you treat a customer compared with how you treat a guest at home,” Mr Wardle said.

Asking ‘what if?’ is simply about listing the rules of a challenge, picking one of them and asking ‘what if that didn’t exist, how would things be different?’

“It’s how Walt created Disneyland,” Mr Wardle said.

“He used to show his movies in a movie theatre, but he was fed up with how dark and dirty they were so he said ‘what if I could control the environment? What if I took the movies out of the theatre? Well it couldn’t be 2D, it would have to be 3D, and if they’re 3D I’d have to have people walk around and if I have people walking around, the different characters would each have to have their own land otherwise people wouldn’t be immersed in the story and then to house all of the different lands I’m going to need Disneyland.’

“‘What if’ is a super easy tool to use to get people out of their river of thinking.”

From humble beginnings 

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right”.

Mr Wardle said this quote by Henry Ford was his favourite and was the driving force behind a number of career accomplishments from the time he began working at Disney.

His first interaction with the company was as a college student working in Florida for a year. Having had a small taste of life with Disney before returning to London, Mr Wardle was hooked and keen to return to the company in any way possible.

Whilst in the UK, however, Mr Wardle saw a career counsellor who in no uncertain terms told him to give up on his dream, as he would never work for Disney again.

“That was probably the kick I needed because I thought ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’,” Mr Wardle said.

“The Disney office in London in those days probably only had about 22 people, and I phoned the office every day for 27 days until they agreed to give me a chance.”

That chance was all he needed. He spent the first six months sorting papers, delivering folders, fetching coffees and, most importantly, observing.

In that time he quickly learned public relations was the ability to walk in with a big idea, sell it and get it to market, which was exactly what he did during his 20 years working in PR for Disney.

Mr Wardle said the ideas he enjoyed most were the audacious ones – the ones that made him sit up and think ‘wow, that would be incredible’.

“I love those projects where you’ve got a 50/50 chance of pulling it off,” he said.

“Those are the ones that keep you alive, because you don’t know if they will succeed. That’s innovation, because innovation is not knowing whether you can do it; otherwise it would be easy.

“For me if you believe you can do it, you can.”

Chris Thurmott is a Senior Journalist for The West Australian and he writes for a variety of different publications including Leader and National Mining Chronicle.