Wednesday, April 2, 2008
The Elephant Graveyard...
On March, 25th 2005, Bob Iger put to death a department within the Walt Disney Company that has long been despised by many Suits and Creatives alike inside the Mouse.
The Strategic Planning Group.
Known inside Disney as the place where good ideas go to die... an Elephant Graveyard, really. If you had an idea, plan or proposal that went there, it stayed there.
Here is a snippet from the original press release from the Mouse:
March 25, 2005
THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY TO REORGANIZE STRATEGIC PLANNING DIVISION
BURBANK, Calif., March 25, 2005 – To address today's rapidly evolving global business landscape, Michael D. Eisner, chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, and Robert A. Iger, president and chief operating officer and CEO-elect, today announced a restructuring of the company's Corporate Strategic Planning Division. The division will be restructured to more closely align with the company's growth priorities, including creativity and innovation, new technologies and international expansion.
Many of Strategic Planning's activities will be incorporated into the company's four business segments -- Studio Entertainment, Parks and Resorts, Consumer Products and Media Networks, as well as Disney's international organization. A smaller corporate group will continue to develop the corporate five-year plan and focus on acquisition opportunities, emerging businesses new to the company's existing portfolio and new technologies.
And it was never, ever seen again(hopefully). This division of the company was like the KGB of the Mouse. When a memo was sent to you informing you that it was "evaluating" something of yours it was equivalent to the Soviet Secret Police coming to your home, knocking on your door and taking your idea/proposal away for questioning.
Yet another byproduct of that tragic helicopter crash which killed Frank Wells. Michael Eisner had great skills but great weaknesses also. Frank Wells was there to balance Eisner and give the Mouse and it's CEO a bit of perspective. the SPG was another growing example of how Eisner's ego grew when unchecked by Wells.
Several people at the Mouse are a result of the SPG. Among them are Jay Rasulo, President of Parks and Resorts(we all know my opinion of him), David Stainton, former President of Walt Disney Feature Animation(gone and thankfully forgotten), and Tom Staggs, Chief Financial Officer at the Mouse(Whom I've met only once and don't yet know enough about to justify praise or condemnation).
This group reported directly to Eisner and tended to bolster his need for justification of a project. If the SPG wanted to come to a conclusion that a proposal or particular part of the company was inefficient or unprofitable then the division would do the research it needed to come to that conclusion. It created the reality to back up its facts and I use the word "facts" very liberally here, friends. If the SPG wanted to prove the world was flat, it would begin doing research to prove it... not try and actually find out if the world is flat. Amazing, ain't it?
The company and particularly the SPG, through Eisner became increasingly "risk adverse" to the point of even telling one person in a meeting where it was pitched a cutting edge proposal that: ""we don't want to be the first into any new business... we'd rather be second or third, after the concept is proven." Now would Walt have ever succeeded if he had followed this model? Essentially, Eisner was using this division as his reasoning for "coasting" on the huge success and fortunes created by the company in the past. There was, perhaps, some creativity within the company but far less than a decade earlier and even more so than what had been there when Walt and Roy ran the company.
Want a shining example of what results from the Strategic Planning Group? It's something most of you all know...
Disney's California Adventure
In a letter that Roy E. Disney wrote when he was on his "Save Disney" campaign there was this little jewel:
"Strat Planning, in effect, "designed" Disney's California Adventure, by (1) setting a profit goal, (2) calculating how many people would attend, at what admission price, level of food consumption, and merchandise purchased, and then (3) capping the expenditure for the "show" at a figure which was almost guaranteed to produce a sub-standard park experience. The "real world" falls entirely outside of all these calculations, questions like "will I like this place?" or "Would I go there repeatedly?' simply are immaterial."
And we all know what happened. Roy knew what he was talking about. Having attended the openings of both DCA and Tokyo DisneySEA later in the same year, he could see which park was catering to its guest and which one was catering to the bottom line.
Thankfully the company is freed from such restraints now... is it perfect, though? No. There is still way too much bureaucracy. Much of it created by our good friend Jay Rasulo. All corporations tend to have layers of red tape and the Mouse still has more than its share, but it has been unburdened by a large creative impediment. Hopefully, the likes of Lasseter and others will overwhelm and simply outlast the remaining road blocks within the Mouse.
It's ironic that for the company to succeed the SPG must die... but even more ironic that the death of creativity at the Mouse was known as the Elephant Graveyard...
We all know an Elephant is supposed to be afraid of a Mouse, not the other way around.