Recently a colleague and I were facilitating an agile project initiation workshop. To help the team to come up with ideas and formulate solutions for the problem they were trying to solve we used a method that combined the Walt Disney Creativity Strategy and Ritual Dissent.
The Walt Disney Creativity Strategy
The Walt Disney Creativity Strategy is a practical creativity process used by Disney to turn fantasies into concrete and tangible expressions and was used to create many of his classic animated films we have grown up to love such as Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia.
One of the major elements of Disney’s unique genius was his ability to explore something from a number of different perceptual positions. An important insight into this key part of Disney’s strategy comes from the comment made by one of his animators that,
“…there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler (critic). You never knew which one was coming into your meeting.”
This was not only an insight into Disney but also into the process of creativity. Creativity as a total process involves the coordination of these three sub-processes: dreamer, realist and critic. A dreamer without a realist cannot turn ideas into tangible expressions. A critic and a dreamer without a realist just become stuck in a perpetual conflict. A dreamer and a realist might create things, but they might not achieve a high degree of quality without a critic. The critic helps to evaluate and refine the products of creativity.
Everybody has the Dreamer, Realist, Critic inside them. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that the Dreamer and the Critic get into a fight. If you take a typical business meeting, you can have a Dreamer, a Critic and Realist in this meeting. Rather than functioning in some organised strategy, the Dreamer says something, the Critic argues against it, then the Dreamer has a polarity reaction to the Critic. The Dreamer and Critic go in conflicting directions until, finally, the realist says, “We’re out of time.”
In addition, one of the biggest problems is that the Critic doesn’t just criticise the dream. The Critic criticises the Dreamer. Part of why Disney could function so effectively is that he didn’t criticise his team or himself, he criticised the plan to accomplish the dream. The purpose of the critic is to insure that something meets certain criteria. What keeps the Critic and the Dreamer from being stuck in a polarity response is the Realist.
The three distinct stages of the creative cycle addresses different questions:
- What you want to do? (As opposed to what you want to stop doing, avoid or quit).
- Why do you want to do it?
- What is the purpose?
- What are the payoffs?
- How will you know that you have them?
- Where do you want the idea to get you in the future?
- How specifically will the idea be implemented?
- How will you know if the goal is achieved?
- How will the performance criteria be tested?
- Who will do it?
- When will each phase be implemented?
- When will the overall goal be completed?
- Where will each phase be carried out?
- Why is each step necessary?
- Does this plan match the criteria and purpose for which it was intended?
- Why might someone object to this new idea?
- Does the idea all fit together and is cohesive?
- Who will this new idea effect and who will make or break the effectiveness of the idea and what are their needs and payoffs?
- When and where would you not want to implement this new idea?
To facilitate the creative strategy, Disney had different rooms for the Dreamer, Realist and Critic. The ideas moved between the three rooms:
- Dreamer Room: This room had inspirational drawings and sayings all over the walls. This was the place were wild ideas and thoughts were born, no restrictions, no limits. Criticisms were not allowed – only dreams!
- Realist Room: This room contained all the tools and instruments that were needed to manifest the dreams. The room was arranged so everyone could see and talk to each other in a collaborative space. Here the dreams that were created in the Dreamer Room were put onto ‘story boards’. (The concept of story boards are also used in agile analysis, although they are more often referred to as user journeys or scenarios).
- Critic Room: Also known as the ‘sweatbox’ as it was located underneath the stairs and was cramped and hot. This is where people would critically review and evaluate the ideas (not the individuals).
The below table summaries the pattern associated with Disney’s creative strategy:
||Long & Short Term
||Past & Future
||Internal – Self
||External – Environment
||External – Others
|Mode of Comparison
Ritual Dissent is a workshop method designed to test and enhance proposals, stories, ideas or whatever by subjecting them to ritualised dissent (challenge) or assent (positive alternatives). In all cases it is a forced listening technique, not a dialogue or discourse.
The basic approach involves a spokesperson presenting a series of ideas to a group who receives them in silence. The spokesperson then turns their chair, so that their back is to the audience and listens in silence while the group either attack (dissent) or provide alternative proposals (assent). The ritualisation of not facing the audience de-personalises the process and the group setting (others will be subject to the same process) means that the attack or alternative are not personal, but supportive. Listening in silence without eye contact, increases listening.
The Workshop – Combing the two approaches
One of the goals of the agile workshop was to come up with ideas and formulate solutions to solve a business problem. When coming up with ideas we want to quickly know if it will work or if the plan is achievable. We want the ideas to fail fast so we can succeed sooner.
We created a process to get fast feedback on ideas by drawing on elements from The Walt Disney Creativity Strategy and Ritual Dissent. The following steps describes the technique we used in the agile workshop:
- Split the group into 2 teams (or more). We ensured we had a good balance of skills and knowledge in each of the groups (eg business SMEs, developers, architects, business analysts etc).
- Each group went to separate rooms. Taking a Dreamer strategy, the group members worked together for 2 hours to dream up ideas, and develop solutions to the problem space without any limits. The groups also represented their ideas by drawing up a story board or visual map of the problem space.
Dreamer - the group sits around the idea to come up with a story board or visual map of the problem space
- A spokesperson from one group (Dreamer) would present their ideas, explain them and the criteria and assumptions behind them in 6 minutes to the other group (Critic) who receives them in silence.
- We then allowed 3 minutes of Q&A time to allow the Critics to clarify the ideas with the Dreamers.
- We asked the Critics to turn and face the story board or visual map containing the idea so their backs were towards the Dreamers. The Critics then proceeded to criticise and dissent the ideas through verbalisation and placing post-it notes on the story board/visual map. The Dreamers received the dissent in silence.
Critic - the group dissent whilst facing the idea to keep the focus on the idea rather the individual Dreamers involved who are observing in silence in the back
At this stage we could have also asked the Dreamers to turn their backs to the Critics, but thought as long as the Critics were facing and dissenting the story board or visual map and therefore criticising the ideas, it was enough to de-personalise the process.
- Steps 3 to 5 were repeated with the groups switching Dreamer and Critic perspectives, so the group that was presenting their Dream become the Critics. And the Critics become the Dreamers.
- Each team then returned to their room clarify specific steps and actions by exploring the Realist questions and identifying ways to make the dream real based on the Critic’s input and feedback. The Realist then transcended to Dreamers once again to refine and come up with the next approximation (improvement) of the idea.
Realist - How can we achieve the dream by answering Realist questions using the Critics feedback.
Dreamer - Come up with the next approximation of the idea.
- We time-boxed the activity which only meant we had time to repeat the above cycle once more (two in total). We then combined the best ideas from the two different groups to form a single idea.
By following agile principles we only needed to do ‘just enough’ to get us to the next stage of the project where we can then iteratively refine the idea. But in practice, you can repeat the above steps as appropriate until you get a more grounded and improved idea.
If you had more than two groups, the Dreamers should present their ideas to a different group of Critics from previous ones to get new criticisms and viewpoints.
Throughout this process, the Dreamer focused on the ‘big picture’ with the attitude that everything is possible. The Realist acted as if the dream is possible and focuses on the formulation of a series of successive approximations of actions required to actually reach the dream. The Realist phase is more action with respect to the future, operating within a shorter time frame than the Dreamer. The Realist is often more focused on procedures or operations. Its primary level of focus is on ‘how’ to implement the plan or idea. The Critic seeks to avoid problems and ensure quality by logically applying different levels of criteria and checking how the idea or plan holds up under various “what if” scenarios. The Critic phase involves the analysis of the plan in order to find out what could go wrong and what should be avoided.
Using the Ritual Dissent approach with the Critics facing the idea (story board or visual map) rather than the individuals de-personalised the feedback subjected by the Dreamers. And finally, using the forced listening technique, not a dialogue or discourse of Ritual Dissent also enabled fast feedback without getting into personal conflicts and arguments.
We found the above steps and approach provided a harmonious process between the three stages of creativity. It incorporated the different points of view of the group members in the three creative cycle (Dreamer, Realist, Critic) to get supportive outcomes.