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The working culture at Disney

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'What's your biggest new idea?'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The time I realised they didn't really get what was going on, even with their own stuff, was I arrived just before Michael Ovitz arrived. And Michael Ovitz was the agent who had... was known as the most powerful guy in Hollywood and after Frank Wells died, they needed somebody else in a kind of more operational role to work with Michael Eisner. And so they hired Michael Ovitz.

On Michael Ovitz's first day, he decides to hold a meeting, which he announces. So lots of the executives, including me, are invited to meet with Michael Ovitz for the first time. And so we show up in this room, with a big, long conference table, and Michael Ovitz is late to the meeting, and nobody knows where to sit, so everybody is sort of milling around. They don't want to sit down until they see where Michael Ovitz sits. And I don't know anybody, so I just sit down, and then finally Michael Ovitz comes in and he sits down at one end of the table and everybody arranges themselves around him, but nobody knows who I am, so the two seats next to me are empty. And the first thing Michael Ovitz says is... he says, 'So, there's a lot of clever people around here, but we need to be smart, not clever.' And I'm thinking, what does that even mean? But everyone looks at him like he's said something profound. And then he says, 'We need to get out of the old ways of thinking. I want each of you to tell me your biggest new idea.' And he's like given nobody any preparation for this. And he turns to the person next to him and he says, 'What's your biggest new idea?' And of course, everybody's just working on whatever they're working on, nobody has any time to think about this. So everybody just ends up talking about the thing they're working on, none of which are terribly radical ideas. I'm not working on anything. And fortunately, I'm like three quarters of the way around the table, so I have some time to think. So I think of what would be like a really big idea for Disney to do. So it gets to me and I start talking about having this new kind of educational brand for kids as they get older, and create a new brand around actually thinking and, you know, that involves the Internet and integrates the Internet with... you know, all stuff Disney wasn't even beginning to think about doing. And I hadn't even thought about doing until five minutes ago. So then Ovitz says, 'Now that's a big idea.' It's the first positive thing he's said about anybody's idea. And then they go around and then we sort of take a break for coffee break, and I sit down after the coffee break and two people come [whoosh] sit down right next to me. And I suddenly realised how things worked. That all of a sudden they want to sit next to the guy that has the big idea. But they can't tell that this idea is just off the cuff, made up. They have no idea. And I suddenly understood that entertainment's not like science. In science there's a real underlying truth. If you've figured out the way that liquid helium works, you've really figured something out. You know something other people don't. It's not like... you know, that's a big idea. In entertainment, what's a big idea is the one that causes the people to sit next to you. And so that was when it first started dawning on me that this was all just smoke and mirrors.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner

Duration: 4 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017