I learned what a Walt Disney Imagineer was when my kids started watching the Disney Imagineering videos about science and engineering. Imagineers are known as the dreamers, doers, and the masterminds of magic at Disney. They create what we see and experience at Disney properties.
I was fortunate to speak with Joe Tankersley, who was an Imagineer for almost two decades. Today he helps organizations improve their innovation process through the power of narrative. How product managers can use narrative was the topic of his keynote speech at the Product Innovation Management conference. I caught up with him to discuss the topic further.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- You talk about two tools for helping organizations improve the development of new products and services – foresight and narrative. Let’s start with foresight – what is that? Foresight is a series of practices designed to help groups and organizations anticipate challenges and opportunities beyond their traditional time range. It is not about predicting the future but about getting a sense of likely changes. Most people start with trends scanning, but if this is all you do, you will likely miss the underlying drivers of the trends. Foresight examines the reasons why trends exist. Culture, technology, social, economic, and political drivers need to be considered. It takes an outside-in perspective by envisioning what will be happening in the world in the future and how that impacts your organization.
- What is narrative and how is it related to foresight? Narrative is story and is the most effective way to explore possible futures. We use scenarios to consider the range of potential futures – the worst case, the best case, and what may occur under specific circumstances. Story gives us a way of exploring the holistic system. (Interestingly, the topic of story and innovation has come up frequently in previous interviews.) You apply foresight and narrative because you believe you have some role in creating the future. The story becomes a guide to help you think about where you want to go.
- How are you using story in organizations to help them become more innovative? One approach is to examine a range of scenarios for the future and then create scenario vignettes – small stories – that are focused on a particular market segment and products. This helps us to imagine what the needs of customers will be in the future and provides the foundation for envisioning a future product. This is not necessarily about creating a product today for users in 10-15 years, but recognizing what steps need to be taken starting today to prepare for customers’ needs in 10 to 15 years. You will never create the story you started with and used as a guide, but you will create new technologies, new capabilities, and anticipate challenges that better prepare you for the future regardless of where you actually end up.
- How can a group or product manager apply the tools of foresight and narrative to improve innovation? You begin by considering what you know, which leads to an understanding of what you don’t know. This expands your horizons and thinking about potential alternative futures. Imagination is a big part of this – you have to think beyond the world that you live in. These become the stories that guide your path towards the future. Unlike traditional persona work that creates a description of the ideal customer, the narratives begin with describing the future circumstances that customers will find themselves in. Considering the future is built around asking a series of if-this-then-that questions and basing the answers on the results of reasonable research. An important element is understanding the rate of change in technology, why things change, and what influences the velocity of change.
- Where can product managers get started thinking about the future? The simple first step is to expose yourself to information that you typically don’t look at. For example, if you’ve never looked at a woodworking magazine, find one to read. Ideas from outside your domain can become the catalyst for innovation. Also, the PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental) tool is a good framework for conducting environmental scanning to understand the influences shaping the future (see http://pestleanalysis.com/what-is-pestle-analysis/ for a description of PESTLE analysis).
- If you could go back to your first day as a Walt Disney Imagineer, what would you tell yourself that you wish you would have known then? You can’t do extraordinarily exciting new things without being willing to fail in a big way. At Disney, Imagineers fail hundreds or thousands of times before the public ever sees their work. To do great work, you have to be willing to fail.
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” – Walt Disney
Listen Now to the Interview
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