All Ears

Disney Institute Brings Creativity and Team-building Expertise to Western Mass.

Business owners often wish for a little magic to help them through the tough spots. While the Disney Institute, the professional development arm of the world-famous corporation is quick to note that the company’s success didn’t happen overnight, some Western Mass. companies are hoping the Disney model will be just the thing to help them pull the sword from the stone.

It can still be a challenge for executives at Disney to explain that the global corporation that began as a cartoon studio in the 1920s doesn’t run on pixie dust and wishes on stars.

But undoubtedly, there’s a little more going on behind the scenes than flights of fancy at a company that now includes 10 theme parks, motion picture studios, countless consumer products, and its own television channel and radio station. Since 1986, the Disney suite of services has also included the Disney Institute, a professional development and training entity that has been using Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. as a ‘living laboratory,’ examining the effectiveness of day-to-day operations and translating them to businesses and organizations around the globe.

Those everyday practices at Disney recently became the backbone of Team Creativity, the latest Disney Institute offering that brings the Disney method to various groups and businesses. The program, which launched just this year, will be staged at Holyoke Community College’s Kittredge Business Center on Sept. 26. Keith Hensley, executive director of business and workforce development at HCC, said the college reached out to Disney earlier this year, in hopes of bringing a little bit of the company’s magic – but more importantly, its corporate know-how – to Western Mass.

“We’ve had the Disney Institute out twice before,” said Hensley, “for training on two separate topics – customer service and leadership, Disney style. Both were very well-received, and when I found out the institute had come forward with Team Creativity, I thought it was a great thing to offer area businesses.”

Hensley said it’s coincidental that the program will be staged so soon after the Kittredge Center’s opening, but it’s a fortuitous coincidence nevertheless.

“We wanted the institute to come and offer this particular training regardless of the venue, but it’s a great fit with some of the things we’re trying to achieve through the business center,” he said. “It’s getting more and more competitive out there in the business world, and what want we try to do is provide tools companies can use to stay economically viable by improving their competitive edge.

“It’s a two-pronged approach,” Hensley continued, “that focuses on using assets within a company and being able to use sparks of creativity to better position that company.”

Hi-ho, Hi-ho

And that, he said, is where the Disney Institute comes in. The organization uses the Disney corporate model and culture as a springboard for training workshops and seminars, and according to Bruce Jones, programming director for the institute, creative problem-solving and a team-based approach are two major hallmarks of that model.

“Creativity and high performing teams are our tenets at Disney,” he said. “We’re always looking at ways to broaden the definition of ‘team.’ We’ve long had content surrounding teams and creativity, but they’re things that are constantly improved.”

Jones explained that the institute’s first off-site program, Keys for Excellence, touched on the power of team-building through creative channels, but Team Creativity takes it to a new level.

“Keys was the first program created for which we leave property on a scheduled basis,” he said. “That continues to be a strong focus. But recently, participants started asking for more. Keys is more of a presentation, but Team Creativity is a full-day workshop that uses brainstorming and team-building activities to discover effective uses of both.”

Jones added that the institute terms the all-day events workshops rather than seminars, because of the high level of audience participation, modeled after Disney employee trainings.

“We are pretty confident in the program,” he said, “because it’s based on leadership, people, management, service, and loyalty – all things we’ve researched and put into practice at Disney, not to mention our audiences expect Disney to have a story to tell, which is another strength.”

Jones added that the workshop is well-suited for those who do not often find themselves in creative positions.

“This is not necessarily tailored to those who find themselves in the traditionally creative role, but to those who want to examine the strength of creativity in their own jobs and teams,” he said. “We’ll look at the analysis of ideas and the implementation of ideas, take them through activities that explore that team dynamic, and hopefully, they’ll discover the dynamic that exists between relationships and results.”

A Problem-free Philosophy

That link between relationships within the workplace and how they often affect the outcome of a given team-related task is something Hensley said he hopes will resonate within the Western Mass. business community. While they’re often seen as ‘soft skills,’ he said team-building and creative management are two things Team Creativity can offer to give the region that competitive edge he sees as essential.

“As we all know, Disney is a hospitality leader, but we absolutely know that their model works and can be applied to other industries,” he said, noting that some local companies, such as Balise Auto Sales, have already jumped on board. “It’s nice that companies will have the opportunity to experience a model that is known to work and not have to reinvent the wheel. That’s why we reached out to Disney – they have a tried and true system from which we want to learn.”

Ann Holland, director of organization development for Balise, echoed Hensley’s comments, adding that as part of a company that has grown considerably in recent years, participants attending Team Creativity from Balise are hoping to glean some information on how to maintain a cohesive corporate culture.

“Balise is growing by leaps and bounds, and with that kind of growth, gaps can occur within internal branding efforts,” she explained. “Disney has built a culture and built an internal brand to support its external branding, and because of our expansion, we are at a point at which we have a tremendous opportunity to learn from that, and engage our associates.”

Holland added that as Disney has already gone through that process of major growth and expansion, she’s also hopeful that the workshop will provide some insight into corporate growth, and how to best streamline the process.

“As a company gets larger, there are more and more projects happening simultaneously and people running in all different directions,” she said. “The question becomes ‘how do you avoid getting too subdivided?’ Disney has really latched onto the answer.

“One of my number one concerns is to keep our culture healthy and strong, as well as be more efficient, and provide career pathing for our associates, which is another thing Disney does well,” Holland added. “I’m also hoping to get some insights on new ideas, and confirmation of current ideas.”

Makes No Difference Who You Are

Jones said some of Holland’s questions are indeed the type of complex issues Team Creativity aims to address, however he did note that the validity of the Disney model might not be immediately evident to some. Therefore, there are several components of Team Creativity that explain how one industry’s culture can be applied in other sectors.

“We don’t hear a lot of cynicism, but it’s probably there,” said Jones. “Some people can’t get past our product. But we do the work up front to address concerns; we ask people who might not be sure how this will apply to their business to think about a scenario in which Disney is in a completely different business, and ask themselves, ‘could these principles apply elsewhere?’

But beyond that, Jones said there are some specific aspects of the program that were designed to make the key points even more relevant to various industries, in part to answer to skepticism regarding the relevance of corporate culture at, essentially, a theme park.

“We point out that there are many similarities among our business and others,” he said, “and competition – the need to stay on top of our game – is one big piece of that.

“It’s important to understand teams and how they work,” he added. “Teams are units of performance. We’re not teaching creativity for fun, but rather creativity to help deliver results. It helps build effective groups and networks; more ideas are generated, teams are strengthened, and that becomes a powerful tool to move an organization forward.”

Jones also noted that Disney functions in a unionized environment, another similarity to many local businesses.

“All types of organizations benefit from thinking about teams and creativity,” he said. “We have that conversation right up front with the audience – we tell people that we’re going to concentrate on the principles at play in our organization, and we stress that it doesn’t always come easy … we’re not perfect, and we don’t take for granted that people understand our culture. But we’ve evolved to where most big organizations find themselves thinking about things like corporate culture very deliberately.”

Fast Facts:

What:Team Creativity, Disney Style
When:Tuesday, Sept. 26, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Where:The Center for Business and Professional Development at Holyoke Community College
Cost:$349/person; teams of three may bring a fourth team member at no cost. Breakfast, lunch, and materials included.
Contact:(413) 552-2122;[email protected]

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (and Business)

That deliberate approach, added Jones, includes sharing the Disney model with other businesses through the institute, as a way to not only share ideas with others, but to hone a culture that has been ingrained at the company since the early 1950s.

“Disney is always working on improving,” he said. “But we have a culture that has been grown organically since the days of Walt – he thought of himself as a bee, pollinating others with ideas that they could take hold of.

“It’s a culture that has grown organically, but now it’s something that we incorporate into virtually everything we do.”

And that’s not magic, though it does make for some animated conversations.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]