2021 NBOA Annual Meeting: Return on Innovation: Duncan Wardle

Opening keynote speaker Duncan Wardle has helped thousands of employees think differently — and improve their organizations’ perceived value.

Nov 30, 2020

From the January/February 2021 Net Assets Magazine.


Interview by Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, President and CEO of NBOA

For 30 years, Duncan Wardle worked for Disney, culminating in his role as head of innovation and creativity, when he and his team helped Imagineering, Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and Disney Parks to create magical storylines and experiences for consumers around the globe.
Now, as founder of iD8 & innov8, Wardle brings his extensive Disney experience to audiences around the world, showing them how to place the end user at the core of the creative thinking process. He teaches master classes at Yale, the University of North Carolina, Duke University and the University of Florida. In 2014 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University in Scotland, and he holds the Duke of Edinburgh Award presented by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

Jeff Shields: How did you come to work for Disney, and what made you stay for 30 years?

Duncan Wardle: It wasn’t likely, my working for Disney, as I grew up in Great Britain. In the mid-1970s there weren’t too many transatlantic crossings, but my mom had a colleague who’d taken a trip to Disneyland and brought me back a bronze key ring, which I still have. It was a shrine in my bedroom throughout my childhood. Then years later, when I was studying at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, I was looking at a notice board to see if I’d been chosen for the rugby team when I saw a flyer with Mickey Mouse. It turned out to be an interview for a job in Orlando, which I got. It lasted for a year, and then I had to come back to London.

By that point I was hell bent on joining Disney. I wasn’t going to do anything else. I went to see a career counselor, and she said, “No, you’ll never work for Disney or go back to America,” but I wasn’t deterred. One of the quotes that I live my life by is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” I called Disney’s London office, which then had only six people, every day for 27 days.

Finally they brought me in, and I got a job as a cappuccino boy. Then about three months later I was given my first real assignment, which was to be the character coordinator for the U.K. premier of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” which Diana, the Princess of Wales, was slated to attend. My job was simply to stand at the bottom of this sweeping staircase at the Odeon Leicester Square and direct Roger Rabbit when he came down. The princess would either choose to engage with Roger or go directly into the auditorium. What could go wrong?

Well, Roger’s feet were rather too large for the steps, and so with about six steps to go, the character tripped and hurdled through the air towards the head of the Princess of Wales. The secret service officers took him down mid-air. There was a famous picture of it in the newspaper. I didn’t go into the office the next day because I assumed that I was fired. But they called me at home and told me to come back. “This is exactly the kind of publicity we need for the film,” they said.

Then I thought, I can make a career out of this, and for 20 years I did mad and outrageous things. I also love the Richard Branson quote: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later.” I’d pitch what I call a 50-50 idea, and if it got approved, I’d think, How on earth am I going to get this done? Those are the ideas I love because they’re what make you wake up in the morning and get going.

Shields: Your final role at Disney was head of innovation and creativity. What did you do to foster that at the company — and what can others learn from your experience?

Wardle: When I was asked to lead innovation and creativity across the company, I had no idea what that meant. I was told that whatever I had been doing in my public relations work, we needed to do it at scale. So I surveyed 5,000 people at Pixar, Lucas Films, ESPN, ABC, Marvel, etc. and asked them what the barriers to being more creative at work were. We identified five barriers. The first was lack of time. It’s always lack of “time to think.”

Then I brought in a company called IDEO, which employs gurus of innovation, and they were very good at coming up with ideas, but they didn’t have to execute. So I created an innovation team to get the job done. But the thing is this: What happens when you have a legal team — does anyone else do legal? Or a sales team? Does anyone else do sales? So if you have an innovation team you’ve subliminally given the message that no one else has to be innovative. It wasn’t working. We were touching only 2-5% of employees, and my job was to embed innovation across the culture.

So I created a toolkit people could use when the innovation team wasn’t around. I took all my learning from years leading design thinking at Disney and created this to make the process easier, more tangible and fun. Why fun? Because you can’t change a culture by talking about it. The tool kit I now teach is successful because employees choose to use it when I’m not around. And why shouldn’t work be fun? Mary Poppins said it best: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun!”

Everyone says that time is the biggest barrier to innovation, but it’s not. The biggest barrier is our own river of thinking — our own expertise and experience. More often we’re being asked to get out of our river of thinking and disrupt. But it’s hard to think differently.

Shields: Independent schools have the opportunity to be nimble, but they also have strong cultures and traditions. How can we overcome barriers to innovation, in your experience?

Wardle: Everyone says that time is the biggest barrier to innovation, but it’s not. The biggest barrier is our own river of thinking — our own expertise and experience. More often we’re being asked to get out of our river of thinking and disrupt. But it’s hard to think differently.

One way to do this is to examine something you’re unsatisfied with and list all the rules that make it that way. This is how Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook and Uber were born. The founder of Netflix, for example, drove to his local video store and did this. He wrote: I have to drive to the physical store. I have to “Be Kind and Rewind.” There are late fees. I can only go during store hours. There are limited copies of films, and they never have what I want the weekend it’s released on video. What if there was no physical store, he thought? This was in 2005, the early days of YouTube, which was filled with amateur content. He thought, let’s provide professional content. And he was off.

To help see this way, you could bring in what I call a naïve expert. Who can fill this role? Someone who doesn’t work for you or is not in your industry and is not there to solve a problem for you. They can ask any question you’re too embarrassed to ask in front of your colleagues. They can throw out an audacious idea. They will not solve your challenge, but they will invariably say something that helps you think differently.

Shields: The NBOA Board recently approved a statement regarding the organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we’re seeking ways to live out this commitment. Could you speak to the specific role diversity plays with regard to innovation?

Wardle: Here’s an example. I was leading the design of a new retail, dining and entertainment complex for Hong Kong Disneyland. In the room I had 12 white male American architects. They were all over 50 years old as well. So I invited into the room a young female Chinese chef. I told all of them, draw a house. The architects with their river of thinking drew conventional looking houses. But the Chinese chef drew a picture of Dim Sum Towers in Singapore, which are so named because they look like a stack of bamboo steamer baskets on a dim sum cart. She gave us permission to consider audacious architecture.

To be brutally honest, most organizations don’t understand the potential that diversity offers them. If someone doesn’t look like you, they may not think like you and can help you think differently. 

Shields: We are all trying to prepare for a very different reality, but many of our schools have limited resources. How does an organization drive innovation under these circumstances?

Wardle: So much innovation isn’t tied to resources. In fact, I think India will be the world’s biggest superpower by 2050. Why? Because they don’t have access to education in poverty areas, and this generates creative thinking. A child will ask why something happens four or five times, and truth be told it takes four or five times to get to the insight for innovation.

Some years ago, I was in Mumbai working on a project, and a boy in the room said, Hey look at this. If I put a plastic bottle over this bit of natural light it will refract the light around the table. And then we took the label off the bottle and light spread more widely. And then we started to play with the level of water in the bottle and the light went out to 12 feet. And then we cut the top off the bottle and it went out to 20 feet. With this insight, we worked with a French water company to distribute hundreds of thousands of indoor “lights” in a place without electricity.

The most creative people in the world are the people without much because they have to be inventive. If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity is the father.

The most creative people in the world are the people without much because they have to be inventive. If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity is the father.

Shields: When I think of taking my daughter to Walt Disney World, I think of the experiences we had together. Likewise, independent schools can create memories that make the experience worth the given price point. Can you describe how “experience” influences perceived value?

Wardle: When Walt Disney opened Disneyland in July 1955, he opened the world’s biggest shopping mall, but he didn’t call it that. He called it Disneyland and put the experience first, not the retail. Most retailers put retail first, then think about the experience. Today some of the most successful shopping malls on the planet per square foot are Disney parks. Here’s a tangible example. Before Universal Studios bought the Harry Potter franchise, a Coca Cola in the park was $3.50. Today it’s called a Butterbeer, and you’ll pay $11.50 for it gladly.

These days it’s all about the experience. Without it, there’s no reason to come. Instacart has got you, Amazon’s got you. And now we’ve got to move toward an enhanced virtual experience because people aren’t going to be going to the stores the way they used to. Today, in the pandemic, it’s not about simply iterating but reinventing. If we don’t do that in the next decade, we won’t survive.

Shields: How will the pandemic drive innovation in the years ahead, so far as you see it?

Wardle: So many habits will be broken by the time a COVID-19 vaccine is six months old. Every single industry will have to change. I have a bet that virtual basketball will be at the Olympics by 2040 and that its revenue will exceed that of live basketball revenue by then. Take the Orlando Magic. They average 14,000 attendees a game. A few years ago, I piloted a virtual Orlando Magic vs. New York Knicks game with the NBA, and a couple million people watched online, and they made substantial revenue on virtual merchandise that didn’t exist. The pandemic is a mother of invention in itself.

Aside from the pandemic, you’ve also got to speak to purpose. Purpose isn’t philanthropy. It’s what do you stand for? Why should I buy your products and services? And why should I work for you? I want to believe in it. My daughter just graduated from college last spring and got her first job working in New York City doing social media. She was laid off in May due to COVID, then offered another job in June at double the salary, but she turned it down. Why? I don’t believe in what the company stands for, she said.

The next generation also cares about sustainability. If you’re not completely carbon neutral by 2035, 2040, you’re gone. The next generation is not going to buy your products or services. No excuses. Generation Z cares a lot more about purpose than profit, and if they don’t believe what you stand for, they not only won’t buy your products, but they won’t work for you.

Shields: Thank you very much for your time, and we look forward to seeing you speak in February at our virtual conference.



of 5 school-aged children live with a mental health condition.

Get Net Assets NOW

Subscribe to NBOA's free twice-monthly newsletter.