Duncan Wardle’s Done with Rules

Ed Wenck | Feb 11, 2020

The game’s called “Yes, and” – it’s a classic exercise used by comedy improv troupes. One player offers a concept: "Our Star Wars party will have Darth Vader conducting an orchestra," for example. The second player’s job is to build on the concept with the simple verbal trigger, “Yes, and,” as in, “Yes, and Darth will conduct with a lightsaber!”

The idea is the polar opposite of another game: “No, because.” One response to the above example might be, “No because an orchestra is entirely too expensive.” The point of contrast between the two: The latter is reductive, and makes ideas smaller in scale. The former's expansive, and nurtures the creative brain.
Both techniques were demonstrated by Duncan Wardle, who provided the opening address at ISE 2020. Wardle, who’d been Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney for more than two decades, was demonstrating one of the ways a great many businesses unintentionally stifle creativity – and how firms could empower their teams to get back to the sense of childlike curiosity that could trigger true innovation.

Wardle – all the while asking the audience to split into teams of two or three for a series of rapid-fire mental workouts like those mentioned above – notes that kids (especially pre-schoolers under the age of roughly six) have their own spin on “Yes, and” – they simply ask the question “Why?” over and again. “Kids have really good BS detectors,” says Wardle. “They know when you’re trying to dodge something.”

The Rules of Disneyland

A big part of Wardle’s strategy for success is breaking rules, including the unstated ones.
“The first thing we might think about when reinvigorating a theme park would be to come up with more rides, maybe dump 200 million into creation, testing, infrastructure,” he says. Instead, Wardle and company moved to find out what visitors to the park really wanted, even if they (and he) hadn’t quite verbalized it yet.
“What are the rules of Disneyland?” he asks. “You’ve got to fly somewhere, park, then wait in line …” That last part, of course, is a pain point for a Disney visitor. So, Wardle and his colleagues developed the “Magic Band,” an RFID bracelet that eliminated turnstiles, hotel check-in waits, and so on. The technology mined the most precious resource anyone on vacation might have: time, up to two hours a day.

“We could have raised admission fees,” says Wardle. “We’d have made three percent more the next quarter.” Instead, he improved the experience, which meant return trips and the best possible advertising campaign any company could ask for in a universe bombarded with social media streams: word of mouth.

Diversity is Key

Another exercise Wardle led: Draw a house in seven seconds.

Most of the audience scribbled or imagined a peaked roof with a door in the middle of the structure. “That’s a pretty common result – especially when I asked a room full of fifty-something white guys to do the same thing,” says Wardle. “That’s the definition of ‘groupthink.’” When Wardle asked a Chinese woman who was a dim sum chef to participate, however, he got a different result: a round basket of a home with a fluffy roof that looked like a dumpling.

“A diversity of experience in that room lead to that result,” says Wardle, “and as we left the room, someone slapped a Post-It note on the drawing that read ‘authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese’ – That’s become the slogan for the Shanghai Disney resort that opened in 2016.”
“We all say ‘we’ve got to innovate,’ but we’ve got to understand how,” says Wardle. “People need the tools to do it – now.” With A.I. poised to replace some (certainly disruptive) percentage of workers in the near future, and firms like Amazon investigating the distribution of inexpensive 3D printers to reduce shipping on a great many items, a sense of urgency isn’t unwarranted. And as Wardle sees it, the only way to meet those challenges is to make it a habit to tap back into our creative sense of childlike curiosity.