What Would Walt Do?

An internal blog post at my work has had me thinking quite a bit. A senior leader – who I have a great deal of respect for – has challenged my notions of government work by stepping right out of government examples altogether to identify an organization he thinks does it very, very right. Disney.

Yup, that Disney. Talk about setting the bar high!

Recently, he posted about the importance of simplicity in Disney’s success, and the practice at Disney of asking “What Would Walt Do?” I’ve spent a lot of time in the past months thinking about leadership in a Gov2 space. I’ve thought about this subject a great deal for the past couple of years. I wrote a reply back to the senior leader in question – which I’ve paraphrased below. Why paraphrase? Because something’s missing here.

“Being like Walt” is what made Disney, Disney for many employees, by personifying corporate history and identity. Walt was the very first “Imagineer”, after all.

Personally, I’m a firm believer in a strong public service Oath, and in the power of what I swore to do to help reduce needless outdated policy and re-energizing trust in each other and ourselves. It’s a physical record that reminds me of the high standards I hold myself to. Here’s an anecdotal example of how a strong Oath, paired with strong leadership at work built awesome wins that saved money:

In November 2009, the City of Edmonton IT department received a mandate from their elected executive to open up their data catalogs. The City of Calgary received the same direction at the same time. The City of Edmonton IT department’s CIO went back to his executive 6 weeks later ready to launch. When asked for an open data policy, the CIO replied “we don’t need one. If it eventually goes out to the public, clearly it’s public data. As for policy on how we make these decisions, we’ve a strong oath and we’ll trust each other. I trust that when my staff makes mistakes, they’ll make it right.” Two weeks after that, I used a citizen-developed transit app on my iPhone to travel to the CIO’s office at the city to ask him about the process. That app was built on the open data catalog. Ridership is up. Four months after that the City of Calgary is still working on their open data policy.

Now, not everything is always right in Edmonton, and by leading the Open Data charge, they gain both wins and lessons to learn, publicly. But they keep going, learning lessons and then sharing those with the rest of us struggling to keep pace. And that’s what’s most important. They’re wonderfully relentless.

Leadership in corporate culture renewal is tricky as there are two key roles in leadership in this space. The first is what we’ve all done – set the stage for a new way of doing things. The second step, which is just as important, comes when those in secondary leadership positions start mirroring what you’re doing. The City of Edmonton senior IT managers didn’t create micropolicy on open data – they followed the CIO’s lead and also trusted their staff, who in turn did the same. It was that vital second step that has created their success. Disney wasn’t truly Disney until Walt’s team started living the big dreams too.

Yet as Nick Charney pointed out this morning, there’s a third step/personality trait/career move/strategy that’s also really important in these successes – staying power in the face of nearly ovewhelming criticism and career threat.

I’m still trying to figure out where this third step fits in, which currently, makes me feel more like Mickey and less like Walt.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Matthew Hall

I get the feeling like there are going to be a lot more Walt’s in the next few years. Everywhere I go now I am hearing the same thing. Share Knowledge, Collaborate, Open Data, Linked Data, Data Standards, User Generated Content, Trust.

The best strategy I know is to keep making strong connections with the evangelists of these topics, and, like Edmonton, keep moving forward slowly towards to dream.

Amanda Blount

Looking at Walt and people who try to get it right is one way not to make the same mistakes they did. I mean who really wants to reinvent the wheel. I try to always ask myself “if this were on my gravestone would I be proud?” when I make a decision. Of course, my answer is not always the right one, but I do try to pick the best answer, even when both solutions may be wrong. I think Walt would have done the same thing. Not every problem has a correct answer – sometimes you have to go for the less wrong one. And then learn how to do better next time.

Kitty Wooley

Bowen, the third step is essential “Walt,” according to something I read a few months ago, right after watching the animated movie, Meet the Robinsons for the third time (I like animation!). A note lives on my dining room table to remind me to track it down again. As the credits roll, there’s a song playing in the background, “Keep Moving Forward.” It’s my understanding that both the movie and the song were dedicated to the memory of Walt Disney, because that was his message to himself and his employees as they charted new territory – to believe in themselves and keep getting back up every time something knocked them down, because if they did that, eventually they would prevail.