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Fri., April 8, 2011, 11:48 p.m.

Disney Institute brings Walt’s ways to Spokane

   Think back to a soul-sucking work day in an environment that didn’t value the individual and corporate creative process, or at least give you the freedom to explore a new way of doing things. Most of us experience that at one time or another in our professional lives: The internship that asks only that you show up and do as you are told. The mid-level management morass that never rewards - and occasionally punishes - innovation. The checklist performance review.

    While plenty of us still struggle to find a method for interacting, performing and thriving in the workplace, others are studying the art of creativity with the masters: Disney.

    Since its opening in 1986, the Disney Institute has provided tutorials for business leaders who are seeking to change - from the inside out - the way they deal with both employees and consumers.

    I’d heard about the Disney Institute but had no real idea of what exactly it is the Institute does. I assumed the programing fell somewhere between basketry classes and trust-building ropes courses, with a little imagineering thrown into the mix. I mean, I get Disney. I just didn’t get how the fantasy translated into the boardroom and more importantly, the cubicle down the hall from the boardroom.

    So, during a family trip to Disney World last September, I asked for more information. I met and was able to spend some time with Disney Institute facilitator Jack Santiago.  When I asked Santiago, the first DI facilitator to present in Spanish, what the basic, consumable, byproduct of the institute is, he waived an arm.

   “Look around,” he said. “We’re in the most creative place in the world. A creative place that runs and grows on a system of best practices. That’s what you get to take home with you.”

    I asked Santiago for an example of a business that had made significant systemic changes after attending the institute. He pointed to the Disney Institute’s work with the healthcare industry.

   “Think of the basic operation of a large hospital or medical center,” he said. “They are there to serve people, to treat people, but it’s easy for that mission to get lost in the bureaucracy or day-to-day business of running the place.”

   By adapting Walt Disney’s business beliefs and passion for creating a positive experience for all “cast members” (employees) hospitals were able to change the way they interacted with “guests” (patients and other visitors.)
    “ The idea is to take our best practices and use them to improve an organization,” Santiago told me.  “We specialize in leadership, service, people management, brand loyalty and creativity training.”

    It made sense, but I asked Santiago for another example. I wanted to talk to someone in a field that it would be hard to imagine benefitting from Disneyisms. That’s how I was introduced to Tom Broussard.

    Broussard, a gregarious, motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing texan is fifth-generation mortician in Beaumont, Texas. He is also a Disney Institute apostle after attending a short presentation at an association annual meeting at DisneyWorld in 2000.
    “I sat there and it was like a lightbulb came on,” he told me during a long phone conversation. “They talked about personalization, making a real connection to others.  Well, what we do is intimately personal.”

    Broussard came away convinced the skills and techniques taught by Disney Institute facilitators could make a difference in the way he and the other funeral service workers in his network interacted with and served clients. He realized that some of the techniques used by Disney enterprises would help him create an experience for those who’d come to say goodbye to a friend or family member that would deepen their bond with the deceased.

    “There’s a move in our industry to celebrate the lives of the deceased. You see slideshows and things like that. But I realized that if we reached out to the people who attended services and helped them create a memorial or a keepsake, we would give them a deeper sense of connection,” Broussard says.  “It didn’t have to mean big changes in the way we do things, just more effective changes.”

    Broussard admits he has the right kind of personality to respond to the Disney Institute message.
        “Some of us expect to find some kind of creative reward or experience in everything we do,” he says. “We look for it. We expect it. We seek it. And we’re compelled to share that, to take that message to others.”

   In other words, he wasn’t hard to sell on the concept. Others, he admits, might not be so comfortable with the idea of personalizing, and in some ways “informalizing” the unique constraints of the funeral service industry.

    “I think the main thing he Institute gives us - as an industry - are the tools to bring back new concepts and ideas,” he says “They give us the skills to be creative and to make changes in a way that makes people comfortable. It’s ingenious.”

   There are the expected contemporary leadership and corporate lessons in Disney Institute programs but Broussard says the first time he met with DI facilitators, the creative process was reduced to an elementary level.

    “They had everyone at the table pass out crayons. ‘Now smell the crayon’ they told us.  There was an immediate reaction. That smell is unique. You get a whiff of it and you’re a kid again,” Broussard says. “It really opened my eyes. I took notes with the crayons. I highlighted with crayon. It was one small way of doing things but I could sense the change immediately.”

   Broussard’s enthusiasm is palpable when he talks about his experience.

   “They talk about structure, but about creative structure," he says. "Like the way you draw the circles when you draw Mickey Mouse. Creative but with structure.”


The Disney Institute is coming to Spokane. Facilitators will be presenting a one-day program geared for local healthcare professionals.
Where:The Lincoln Center
When: April 12,
Details: For more information on registering for the Disney Institute program hosted by the Human Capital Academy in Spokane call (877) 544-2384, ext. 1.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at


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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.