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More than magic for Disney toys

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Somehow, Walt Disney’s toy division, run by Chris Heatherly and Len Mazzocco, churns out scores of innovative new toys every six months. What’s their magic?

Their continuous innovation hinges on a systematic brainstorming and prototyping process that works like this:

Assemble the right group. Heatherly and Mazzocco handpick diverse groups of 50 people 20 to 30 times a year for two- or three-day brainstorming sessions. Each diverse group includes Disney designers, engineers, salespeople, video game designers and theme park employees, as well as workers who will eventually manufacture the products.

Break the ice for 10 to 30 minutes. Employees break out of their workplace mindset and get comfortable with one another. “You have to have some decompression time to be creative,” says Heatherly.

Brainstorm. They’re given parameters—say, designing dolls to accompany the new Princess and the Frog movie. They list as many ideas as they can, then vote for favorites.

Prototype ideas. Disney artists assigned to each group draw detailed concepts, much like a comic book storyboard.

Teams present ideas as product pitches. This step forces them to think about practicality and marketing.

Heatherly says 50% of their products come from the process.

“A lot of other brainstorms tend to hover at a conceptual level,” Heatherly states. “We’re going to walk out of there with five to 10 actionable ideas that are going to make more money.”

— Adapted from “Inside Disney’s Toy Factory,” Damian Joseph, BusinessWeek.

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