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Mouse Mojo

By Mike Bonifer 2 years ago
Home  /  Innovation  /  Mouse Mojo

In the early 1980s, there was a lot of talk about The Walt Disney Company being on its last legs. Most of this talk came from inside the company. Managers who’d been there 20 years or more were convinced that the Disney organization was going to fall apart on their Mickey Mouse watch.

Nearly every day there was a new rumor inside the company about its imminent demise. Six Flags was going to buy the theme parks. Irwin ‘The Liquidator’ Jacobs was mounting a takeover with the intention of breaking up the company. The demographic had aged. The Black Cauldron would be the last animated film, ever. The films couldn’t make a profit because there weren’t enough people in the ‘Disney demo.’ Don Bluth raided the Animation division of many of its most talented young animators and started his own studio. The live action films had turned into an industry joke, making films like The Unidentified Flying Oddball, Condorman and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. The Wonderful World of Disney was no longer must-see on Sunday night TV.

The company’s founding brothers and guiding lights, Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney, had been gone for over a decade. The organizational narrative of Disney seemed to many of its employees to be in a death spiral.

The story turned around, of course, a long time ago. Today they’re huge and omnipresent–flush with cash and channel value, stocked with big-libraried brands like Marvel and Star Wars, a new theme park opening this summer in Shanghai, animated features by Disney and Pixar setting record after box office record, the Disney Channel a tween dream factory–the Mouse owns.

What’s not ludicrous today is that a company would find itsself in a down-spiral like Disney did in 1984. Happens all the time. The phenomenon is huge and omnipresent.

A classic managerial analysis will naturally point to Manager-Heroes as being responsible for the turn in Disney’s story. And it’s true, there were definitely heroic characters in the new management lineup that took over in the mid 1980s, when the turnaround began. People like Michael (“If it’s not growing it’s dying”) Eisner, Frank (“Climb every mountain”) Wells and Jeffrey (“If you don’t come in to work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday”) Katzenberg got things moving in a big way. It went from a studio where no one took the stairs to a studio where people ran stairs two at a time. Those guys re-animated a sleeping giant.

What surprised those guys was how big the sleeping giant was. How much unrequited love was already in the marketplace, and in young Hollywood, too, for the Disney brand. How talented the upcoming Disney artists were. How ready for Prime Time they were. So many Geniuses in Waiting.

Here’s the big learning from this story: It’s their surprise at what they discovered inside the Disney organization. The Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg team, able managers though they were, tapped into something that was already there.

Something was already there. In place. Waiting for its time to come. 

Your focus as an organizational storyteller is on what’s already there but is currently hidden–maybe even hidden by an outlook as downbeat as Disney’s was back in the early 1980s.

There’s no formula for these turns in the organizational narrative. Each scenario is different, and calls for different mechanisms to enact the change. What we can tell you is that the conditions for such a turn always involve failure and forgiveness. You must make space to fail. And you must forgive failures. Not every space can be open to failure. And some failures can’t be forgiven. But it’s in our capacity to celebrate failures that we learn, and break through creatively. Success is always adjacent to failure. And it’s in in our capacity to forgive that we grow together, and touch hearts. After that, the economic growth, while not inevitable, gets much better odds of happening. Fast. And for a long time to come.




  Innovation, Organizational Effectiveness, Story Organization
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 Mike Bonifer

  (57 articles)

Mike Bonifer is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer for bigSTORY, a company of strategists & practitioners who are first in the world to utilize quantum storytelling, an emerging organizational science that accounts for how stories are created, live in networks, and influence behaviors. Throughout his professional life, Bonifer has been in the forefront of emerging storytelling practices and technologies. As the publicist on Tron, the author of The Art of Tron, and the writer and producer of Computers are People, Too, he explained computer-generated imagery to the analog world. As a founding producer of The Disney Channel, he pioneered the Walt Disney Company’s entrance into cable television with the legendary documentary series, Disney Family Album. As the producer of the award-winning website for Toy Story, he introduced movie fans around the world to Pixar’s extraordinary storytelling. He co-founded Network LIVE, which lives on as Control Room, producer of some of the biggest online music events in the world, including 2007’s Live Earth concerts for the environment, for which he served as Chief Storyteller. In 2007, he wrote and published GameChangers – Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and, with Dr. Virginia Kuhn of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-founded GameChangers, a learning company that applied improvisation to business communication. His work with GameChangers dramatically improved the performances in units of companies such as Skype, Gap Inc. The Walt Disney Company, United Airlines Media, Gawker Media, NetApp and GE. He has conducted university workshops in Public Health, Entrepreneurship, Engineering, Sociology and Cinema; collaborated with Alan Alda on a workshop for the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC; explained quantum storytelling to physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; coached Ron “The Gangster Gardener” Finley on his famous TED Talk on urban gardening; and returned to his old hometown in Indiana, to tell stories about the legendary smalltown Hoosier baskeball team, his childhood heroes,The Ireland Spuds. He was the featured storyteller at the 2014 San Miguel International Storytelling Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He and his son, Alex, perform a two-person improv act called BonBon, the only father-son comedy improv act in the world (that they know of). In 2015, he will tour Panama, Guatemala and Nicaragua on behalf of the Notre Dame Executive Education program. With bigSTORY, Bonifer and Jeremi Karnell have created a home for one of the most remarkable advances in storytelling of our lifetimes. A way of seeing the world through the lens of the stories we create together. A theory that accounts for the brilliant possibilities that await us when your story and my story become our story.