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ATD Blog

What Can We Learn From Disney’s Way of Thinking?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

In December 1916, 101 years ago, Walt Disney, barely 15 years old, got new boots for Christmas. A nail in his boot hurt his toe, and he was forced to quit his mandatory paper route for two weeks. During this rare time of reflection, Walt contemplated his future and made up his mind to become a cartoonist, and so started the unequalled career of world's most famous and successful entertainer.

Why is it particularly interesting to look at Walt Disney’s accomplishments now? The Walt Disney company is still regularly breaking business records.

At the heart of Disney's unparalleled success was an uncompromising urge and determination to change the industry and to create and surpass new boundaries. Amongst his innovations are cartoons with sound and color, feature animation, multi-plane cameras, the theme park concept, audio-animatronics, combining animation with live action, the EPCOT concept, a winter sports resort concept, and many more. On top of that, no other entertainment icon won as many Oscars as Disney did (and still does!)—26 during his lifetime.

All that for a man who came from an average family; suffered mental and physical hardships as he grew up; was no more than an average student, average designer, and average businessman; and who went bankrupt upon his first business venture. What made the difference? His belief in his own imagination!

During a session at the ATD 2018 International Conference & EXPO, we will look at the structure behind the strategy of effective creation and innovation: What can we learn from Disney’s way of thinking? What thinking strategy led to these innovations? How did he manage his imagination? How can we apply the same principles? We will literally step into his footprints by applying Robert Dilts' Disney Strategy, as described in his book Strategies of Genius, to get an insight into the world of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

We will explore new ideas and projects by letting our imaginations flow freely, while in the next step testing our ideas on practical feasibility; finally, we will step into our plans, face the possible pitfalls, and reflect upon solutions. While doing so, we will experience the key principles of effective creation and innovation: dreaming without censorship, chunking and sequencing, matching and mismatching, association and dissociation.


In the role of the dreamer, visualization is key. There are no boundaries to what you may imagine. You need to be able to strongly associate with the future situation. This is typically the role of the “what” (what it is you want to accomplish).

The realist will typically focus on the “how.” In the animation process, this would be the stage of storyboarding and chunking and sequencing the available information, as if things are already happening. This role is about organization and planning, and making the dream happen.

The critic, or the spoiler, is fascinated with “what if.” What if things do not go the way we planned? In this phase, you wonder what could go wrong. From a dissociated point of view, you mismatch the ideas of the former two phases, with a focus on the product and not on the person.


This session can help managers support their talents or team members in striving for new and excellent ideas, and encourage their imagination. Facilitators can use the steps of this process to work with groups and re-energize team dynamics or establish new challenging goals.

It may also offer team members or coachees a structure to reflect upon their ideas from both a practical and critical perspective. They may discover new ways to help others, and help your organization achieve and manage a culture of innovation and excellence.

No prior knowledge is required for this session; do bring your ideas and dreams, and your imagination! Register for ATD 2018 to attend and learn more.

About the Author

Bob Berkman is owner of Up4communication. After a 15-year business career in entertainment—working as communication director for companies such as Walt Disney Parks, Holiday on Ice, and Endemol—Bob Berkman made an extensive study of interpersonal communication and established himself as a consultant in this field, while also holding a position as lecturer at Inholland University (Netherlands) in the school of media and entertainment management. Bob has been working with business, private, and student groups to align their communication with their goals for more than 10 years.

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