3 Rules for Building Disney

In 2010, I worked at Disney. I built the technology that went inside the parks, technology that touched millions of lives every single month. I worked in a culture full of passion, a passion dedicated to providing an unforgettable experience for the guests. I worked in teams that were innovating at the forefront of animatronics and virtual reality and good old-fashioned storytelling.

It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but I chose not to continue working there because I saw a bureaucracy. I saw a legal team that touched every single creative decision, and I saw a company structure that would obscure the best of ideas.

Five years later, my team and I built cleverlayover, a flight search engine that finds cheaper flights with significant savings over Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia and any other flight search engine. Though cleverlayover doesn’t quite impact the lives of its users the way Disney impacts the lives of its guests, I like to think that cleverlayover has been able to add value with every single visit, that in some small way our team has been able to provide happiness to the world. My biggest aspiration as we build cleverlayover is to emulate the quality and engagement that Disney provides through its attention to detail and passionate culture, yet my biggest fear is that we emulate the bureaucracy of a large conglomerate as we scale.

If we ever reach the size of Disney, then a rigid organization structure is inevitable. However, in the mean time, as we hire our first employees and cultivate the first set of norms, here are three principles we’ll follow as we build a world where dreams come true:

  • Pay for talent instead of creating guidelines. When creating a role within a team, an uneasy tension exists between prescriptiveness and comprehensiveness. The more specific the job duties, the less likely they are to encompass everything you want from the role. However, the more broad-ranging the job description, the less likely the responsibilities will be interpreted accurately. As an organization hires to fill positions, many choose to be diligently prescriptive—roles become strictly defined and have a narrow set of responsibilities within the company. This makes the role less flexible and requires the organization to hire for more positions. Each employee becomes a small piece of the corporate machine. This is how a bureaucracy is born. Instead, we will choose to sacrifice accuracy in order to create more entrepreneurial roles, and we will protect our downside by paying for talented individuals who can make the right tradeoffs without much guidance. Though a more expensive tactic, this maintains the culture of a small startup even as the team grows.
  • Prefer failure to best practices. What portion of resources should be dedicated to retargeting users? When should servers be insourced? How much does SEO matter? Many of the questions that small companies try to answer have been asked before. Sometimes, there might be an answer that makes sense for many or even most companies. Following best practices and researching the mistakes of past companies can drive considerable value. However, pursuing best practices sacrifices often times sacrifices nimbleness. Startups don’t have subject-matter experts in everything, and they shouldn’t create subject-matter expert teams to ensure they get the right answer every time. If a company becomes too focused on creating specialized teams to get everything right, then it creates too many departments. Instead, experimenting and embracing failure can help a company avoid bureaucracy.
  • Remember the mission. Disney’s greatest triumph is its culture. It instills in all its employees—affectionately known as cast members—a dedication to the guests unparalleled anywhere else. As a result, each cast member keeps the end-goal in mind. As a former employee, I still pick up litter in the parks whenever I visit—every cast member wants to keep the parks clean. The effect is that Disney World is as clean as any park full of thousands of children can be. For any company smaller than Disney, having a culture where every employee is driven toward the same goal ensures that the goal gets accomplished even without clear procedures in place. The cleverlayover mission is providing users with unrivaled information on the cheapest flights available. We won’t need additional procedures in place as we grow to ensure that this undertaking gets accomplished if all employees feel passionate about this aspiration

Originally published at http://fd2015.hbs.org/submission/3-rules-for-building-disney/

Image source: http://www.layoverguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Disney-World-in-Orlando-Florida.jpg