Walt Disney was a high school dropout who was fired from his first job on a newspaper because he lacked imagination. Over the next few years, he suffered several business disasters and bankruptcy. His life reminds me of a quote Abe Lincoln told a reporter who asked him how he became so strong and solid during all the hard years of his presidency. Lincoln replied “Adversity, adversity, you must welcome all the adversity you can in your life because it is only by overcoming adversity can you become the person you are capable of becoming.”

Disney overcame his personal and financial challenges by using his imagination to create an entertainment empire that has touched the hearts, minds and emotions of all of us.

I learned imagineering from Walt Disney. The term “Imagineering” combines the words imagination and engineering and basically means engineering your dreams and fantasies back to earth into something realistic and possible. This enabled him to transform the dreams, fantasies and wishes of his imagination into concrete reality.

Disney’s imagineering strategy involved exploring something using three different perceptual positions. Imagineering synthesizes three different strategies: the dreamer, the realist, and the critic. A dreamer and realist can create things but find that a critic helps to evaluate and refine the final products.

Following are descriptions of each strategy:

DREAMER. A dreamer spins innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas without limit or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. To be the dreamer, ask: If I could wave a magic wand and do anything I want – what would I create? How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive?

REALIST. The realist imagineers the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible. He would try to figure out how to make the ideas work and then sort them out in some meaningful order. To be the realist, ask: How can I make this happen? What are the features and aspects of the idea? Can I build ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? How can I use the essence of the idea to imagineer a more realistic one?

CRITIC. The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to punch holes in them by playing the devil’s advocate. To be the critic, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best I can do? What can make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A user? Is it worth my time to work on this idea? Can I improve it?

Suppose your challenge is to improve morale at work.


Here are three ideas from the dreamer:

  • Create a “happy” pill that makes people feel happy and positive. Provide them free to employees.
  • Pay people to stay at home.
  • Give everyone a company car of their choice.


Study the ideas and try to work them into something practical. Examine the principle and then try to create metaphorical-analogical connections with something in your experience.

  • “Happy” pill. The essence of this idea is to improve an employee’s attitude. How can this be made into a benefit? How are attitudes adjusted?
    • Ideas. Bring in motivational speakers to speak during catered in-house lunches. Bring in a masseur once a week to give back massages. Bring in a facilitator to give attitude adjustment exercises and produce role playing skits. Encourage employees to take evening or weekend courses in art, sculpture, crafts, woodworking, creative writing and so on. Pay the tuition and provide a room where employees can display their creative products. Have each employee bring in an object for their desk that symbolizes something important about them. E.g., a crystal ball represents forward-looking vision, jumper cables to represent a person who jump starts others, a can of WD-40 representing someone who is called upon to do many different things, etc.
  • “Pay people to stay at home.” The essence of this idea is “at home.” What do people do when they stay home? They work on their house, household projects, remodeling, painting, landscaping, and gardening. How can this be made into a benefit?
    • Ideas. Offer the employees the services of a handyman as a benefit. Employee pays for materials; employer pays the handyman to fix sinks, hang wallpaper, and so on. Provide the services of a real estate consultant who will offer suggestions on how employees can upgrade their houses and property to increase the value of their assets.
  • “Company” car. The essence of this idea is to provide something related to cars or transportation. What are some aspects of cars that can be engineered into ideas?
    • Ideas. Make a fiscal arrangement with a youth group to come once a week and wash all the employee cars at the company’s expense. The cause should be a tax deductible one. Create an incentive system   where points are awarded for exceptional performance. When so many points are accrued, award the employee with a gift certificate for gasoline or routine maintenance from a local garage. Make a company car available for employees to use while their cars are being serviced or disabled. Provide a company designated driver for Friday and Saturday evenings. Employees who’ve imbibed too much can call the driver. The driver drives them home and then drives them back to their car the next day.

Suppose your challenge is to increase the number of sales calls.

Dreamer: The salesperson gets a commission for every call made even if a sale is not made. In fact, you reward rejections as well as successes.

Realist: Every time a salesperson gets a “no,” track and record them in your system. The person with the most no’s received a $100 gift card every week. This might sound crazy, but you get a lot of no’s when doing sales. The more no’s you get, the closer you are to getting a “yes.” The prize of getting a “yes” is way larger than $100, so you still wanted to get “yes.” 

Put your imagination to work. What is your dream? Now imagineer it back to a realistic idea.

 (Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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