Duncan Wardle: Embedding a Culture of Innovation into Everyone’s DNA

At Oslo Business Forum, Duncan revealed to leaders why they are the number one killer of ideas and how they can change this behavior overnight if they choose to.

Duncan Wardle is the Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney where he and his team have helped Imagineering, Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, and Disney Parks to innovate, creating magical new storylines and experiences. Now, his unique innovation toolkit helps companies embed a culture of innovation into everyone’s DNA. Duncan is a multiple TED speaker and contributor to Fast Company, Forbes, and the Harvard Business Review. He teaches innovation Master Classes at Yale, Harvard, and Edinburgh University.

Innovative tools for creative thinking

When you ask people about the traits they look for in leaders, “creativity” is a common reply. But when you ask leaders whether they’re creative, many hesitate to say they are. Perhaps we’re just being humble, or perhaps (more likely) we’re trapped in our rivers of thinking.

As a successful business leader, your “river of thinking” flows in the direction of your experience. Its stream is determined by what you’ve seen, felt, and believe to be true. It may accurately portray your expertise, but it can also limit your ways of thinking. So how do you disrupt the flow? And why would you want to?

The more creativity and innovation you let in, the wider and faster your river of thinking—and your team’s—becomes. But not enough leaders seize opportunities to expand their rivers.

"You are the number one killer of ideas"

“As leaders, you are the number one killer of ideas,” said Duncan. “But you can change a culture overnight if you choose to go there.”

In a lightening-speed presentation at Oslo Business Forum, Duncan illuminated for leaders the simple questions they can ask and practices they can put in place to embed a culture of innovation into their company’s DNA.

From “No because” to “Yes and”

When a member of a team approaches you with a new idea, what’s your knee-jerk reaction? Unfortunately, many leaders reply with “No because …” and offer a litany of excuses for why the idea can’t or won’t work.

Duncan guided leaders at Oslo Business Forum through an exercise to reverse their response. In pairs, one pitched and idea and the other fought the urge to respond with “No because …” and instead replied, “Yes and …”

“How did that feel?” asked Duncan. To the audience’s resounding response of “fun,” he said, “Why shouldn’t work be fun?”

This exercise for creative thinking demonstrated how “my” idea can become “our” idea, literally expanding and transforming before our eyes. Duncan pleaded with leaders not to allow their first response to an idea to be “No because.”

“We are not creating this idea for execution today,” he reminded leaders. “We are merely green housing it for the future.”

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What if?

Duncan believes in many creative thinking tools that enable leaders to break the rules and generate new ideas. One tool is a simple but powerful question, and he showed leaders at Oslo Business Forum how to put it into practice with an easy two-step process:

Step one: List all the rules of the challenge you’re working on.
Step two: Pick one of those rules and ask the most audacious question: What if these rules didn’t exist?

"You need to ask this question when you are at the top of your game"

It’s the technique Walt Disney employed when he dreamed of taking the magical, fairytale worlds he had created from the film screen to real life—and it’s how Disneyland was born. This creative thinking process can unlock innovation, giving everyone on your team the courage to ask provocative questions and explore uncharted territory.

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Naïve experts

When faced with a challenge, one of the most important things leaders can do is invite a “naïve expert” into the room. A naive expert is someone who does not work in your industry and knows nothing about your objective. He or she is not likely to solve your problem, but they will help you think more creatively by getting you out of your river of thinking.

Your river of thinking will tell you what the solution to the problem should look like—and it’s based entirely on your own narrow ways of thinking and behaving. The naive expert will ask questions you’re too embarrassed to ask and share ideas you’d never dream of pitching.

“Diversity is innovation,” said Duncan. “If somebody doesn’t look like you, they don’t think like you. And if they don’t think like you, they can help you innovate.”

How might we?

Duncan believes that leaders need to give people permission to think differently to solve their industry’s or company’s biggest challenges. He illustrated with an example from Disney Parks.

When Disney was exploring new revenue opportunities, they didn’t ask, “how might we make more money?” Had that been the question, they would have simply increased the price of admission at the gates—and risked frustration and dissatisfaction from park visitors. Instead, they asked, “how might we solve the consumer’s biggest pain point?” Starting with that question led to the creation of Disney’s Magic Band, a wristband enabling park visitors to unlock their entire experience—and seamlessly make purchases.

Reversing their approach and looking at it from the consumer’s point of view helped Disney achieve record increases in revenue.

“Think about how you can reverse the challenge you’re working on to get people to think differently,” Duncan said. “You’ll be empowered to own the space.”

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Freshness and bravery

What is the importance of freshness in leadership? When you think about it, most of us are exposed to the same stimuli day in and day out. We sleep on the same side of the bed, get up and eat the same breakfast, travel the same route to and from work. Duncan cautioned leaders at Oslo Business Forum that under these conditions, there are “no fresh stimuli in, no new ideas out.”

He challenged leaders to look for opportunities to create new stimuli for their teams, encouraging them to observe and talk about things they see in their personal and professional lives that inspire creativity and innovation.

As important as fostering these fresh conditions is a leader’s ability to act with courage. Duncan believes that leaders need to experience discomfort, uncertainty—and even worry—to truly lead with bravery. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is an automatic trigger to think and act differently. “I’ll leave you with this,” said Duncan. “The opposite of bravery isn’t cowardice, it’s conformity.”

Key Points

  • Leaders are the number one killer of ideas when they respond with “No because” instead of “Yes and.”
  • Asking “What if these rules didn’t exist?” is a simple but powerful way to generate creative thinking.
  • Engaging a naïve expert to ask the questions you’re too embarrassed to ask will create diversity of thinking and drive innovation.
  • Reversing your approach and looking at a challenge from the customer’s point of view will empower innovation.
  • Leaders who introduce fresh stimuli and act with bravery create the conditions necessary to generate new ideas.

Questions to Consider

  • When a member of your team approaches you with a new idea, are you more likely to respond with “No because” or “Yes and”?
  • When is the last time you asked a provocative question that enabled you to break the rules?
  • Do you regularly engage “naïve experts” who can help you look at your challenges in a different way?
  • Do you find yourself solving challenges through the lens of the business or from the perspective of the customer?
  • How are you creating opportunities to introduce fresh stimuli and generate new ideas?

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