At Least One Person Needs to Know What They’re Doing

A couple of years after we started Viewlogic Systems, we decided to have a motivational speaker come to a sales meeting.  Of course, we had no money, so we dropped our requirements from “motivational” to just “interesting.”  I don’t remember how we got in touch with the guy who eventually spoke at the meeting (a cousin of a friend of an ex-wife or something like that), but it turned out really well and, while I can’t remember the guy’s name, his messages had a big impact on me and I used them as management guidelines for many years.

The gentleman who spoke to us was the project manager for the development of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center.  Apparently, he was the actual guy who managed the development of the entire park.  He was a soft-spoken guy who was a little lost presenting and didn’t understand completely why he was there, but he had terrific stories.

The one I remember best and certainly impacted the way I manage the most went something like this . . .

There was a design meeting focused on the development of the entrance to EPCOT.  The group was chartered to make something big and impressive.  Something that would become a well-known symbol for EPCOT and, perhaps, Disney World itself, throughout the world.  Every visitor to the park would travel through this entrance on the way to the rest of the park – it had to leave a lasting impression.

They were considering pyramids, skyscrapers, huge waterfalls and the like when someone came up with the idea of a geodesic dome.  The idea was to build the world’s largest geodesic dome and, unlike other domes on display throughout the world, it wouldn’t be just decorative – people would be able to enter it.  Perhaps they would even put a Disney-class ride inside it.  Everyone loved the idea and they started to run with it.

With excitement, the group went headlong into planning.  The ride inside the dome grew in scope quickly (E-ticket, for those that remember) and the outside dimensions of the dome skyrocketed.  Then one day, Walt Disney, the man himself, came to visit and see how the group was doing.  They excitedly explained their plan to Disney fully expecting instant approval and for him to share their enthusiasm.

As the story goes, Disney was thoughtful, then leaned back in his chair.  He looked at the group and said: “has anyone in this room ever actually built a geodesic dome or, in fact, ever even seen one being constructed?”  To which everyone either nodded negatively or mumbled “no” under their breath.

Allegedly, Disney then said: “I have only one requirement for design teams . . . at least one person on the team has to have some idea about what they’re doing.”  Later that week the team started to recruit a new member from outside of Disney – someone who had built a geodesic dome before.

I’m sure that I’ve distorted this story over the many years since I’ve heard it, but I’m confident that I recall the key facts as told to me.  It had a big impact on me.  Here was a guy whose name is synonymous with dreaming and with the big picture,  When it came down to the brass tacks of implementation, though, wisdom and not dreams were what mattered to him.  At some point, all great ideas need to be bounded by reality.  Otherwise, they’ll likely remain great ideas.

Earlier, as a CEO and now as an investor, I mimic Disney’s question whenever anyone presents me with a new idea to be funded.  “Does anyone on the team know how to build an xyz?  Has anyone on the team ever known anyone else who has built an xyz before?  Does anyone know why every other xyz ever built has failed?”  Of course, many new ideas are just that – new.  In that case, I want to know if anyone on the team has ever built any part of an xyz before or even understands the process for building it.  Is there any foundation of knowledge that would make me believe that the building of an xyz will be successful?

Does this stifle innovation?  I doubt there are many that would argue that Disney wasn’t an innovator.  In reality, there are few ideas that are wholly new.  Contrary to many entrepreneur’s beliefs about the revolution that’s embedded in their idea, virtually everything has a component of its product, service or market that was refined earlier.  Research has its place, and that’s rarely as a business.  The application of previous research and proven ideas, though, are a perfect foundation for creating a new product or service and, ultimately, for making money.  Even more important, having people on your team who have associated experience can mean the difference between a successful product or service and a failure.

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