Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business - Charles Duhigg (2016)
Chapter 7. INNOVATION
How Idea Brokers and Creative Desperation Saved Disney’s Frozen
The audience starts lining up an hour before the screening room doors open. They are directors and animators, story editors and writers, all of them Disney employees, all eager to see a rough draft of the movie everyone is talking about.
As they settle into their chairs and the lights dim, two sisters appear on the screen against an icy landscape. Anna, the younger character, quickly establishes herself as bossy and uptight, obsessed with her upcoming wedding to the handsome Prince Hans and her coronation as queen. Elsa, her older sister, is jealous, evil—and cursed. Everything she touches turns to ice. She was passed over for the throne because of this power and now, as she runs away from her family to a crystal palace high in the mountains, she nurses a bitter grudge. She wants revenge.
As Anna’s wedding day approaches, Elsa plots with a snarky snowman named Olaf to claim the crown for herself. They try to kidnap Anna but their plan is foiled by the square-jawed, dashing Prince Hans. Bitter Elsa, in a rage, orders an army of snow monsters to descend upon the town and destroy it. The villagers repel the invaders, but when the smoke clears, casualties are discovered: Princess Anna’s heart has been partially frozen by her evil sister—and Prince Hans is missing.
The second half of the film follows Anna as she searches for her prince, desperately hoping that his kiss will heal her damaged heart. Meanwhile, Elsa prepares to attack again—and this time floods the village with vicious snow creatures. The monsters, however, are soon out of her control. They begin to threaten everyone, including Elsa herself. The only way to survive, Anna and Elsa realize, is for them to join forces. Through cooperation, they defeat the creatures and the sisters learn that working together is better than struggling apart. They become friends. Anna’s heart thaws. Peace returns. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The name of the movie is Frozen, and it is scheduled to be released in just eighteen months.
Normally, when a movie screening ends at Disney, there’s applause. Often, people cheer or shout. There are usually boxes of tissues inside the screening room because, at Disney, a good cry is the sign of a successful film.
This time, there is no crying. There are no cheers. The tissues go untouched. As everyone files out, they are very, very quiet.
After the screening ended, the film’s director, Chris Buck, and about a dozen other Disney filmmakers gathered in one of the studio’s dining rooms to discuss what they had just seen. This was a meeting of the studio’s “story trust,” a group responsible for providing feedback on films as they go through production. As the story trust prepared to discuss the latest draft of Frozen, people served themselves from a buffet of Swedish meatballs. Buck didn’t get anything to eat. “The last thing I was feeling was hungry,” he told me.
Disney’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, kicked off the conversation. “You’ve got some great scenes here,” he said, and mentioned some of the things he particularly liked: The battles were thrilling. The dialogue between the sisters was witty. The snow monsters were terrifying. The film had a good, fast pace. “It’s an exciting movie, and the animation is going to be amazing,” he said.
And then he began listing the film’s flaws. The list was long.
“You haven’t dug deep enough,” he said after detailing a dozen problems. “There’s not enough for the audience to connect with because there’s no character to root for. Anna’s too uptight and Elsa’s too evil. I didn’t find myself liking anyone in the movie until the very end.”
When Lasseter was done speaking, the rest of the story trust chimed in, pointing out other problems: There were logical holes in the plot—why, for instance, does Anna stick with Prince Hans when he doesn’t seem like such a catch? Also, there were too many characters to keep track of. The plot twists were foreshadowed way too much. It didn’t seem believable that Elsa would kidnap her sister and then attack the town without trying something less dramatic first. Anna seemed really whiny for someone who lives in a castle, is marrying a prince, and would soon be queen. One member of the story trust—a writer named Jennifer Lee—particularly disliked Elsa’s cynical sidekick. “I f’ing hate Olaf,” she had scribbled in her notes. “Kill the snowman.”
The truth was, Buck wasn’t surprised by all the criticisms. His team had sensed the movie wasn’t working for months. The film’s screenwriter had restructured the script repeatedly, first with Anna and Elsa as strangers rather than sisters, then with Elsa, the cursed sister, assuming the throne and Anna upset at being a “spare, rather than an heir.” The songwriters on the film—a husband-and-wife team behind such Broadway hits as Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon—were exhausted from writing and discarding song after song. They said they couldn’t figure out how to make jealousy and revenge into lighthearted themes.
There were versions of the movie where the sisters were normal townspeople rather than royalty, and others where the sisters reconciled over a shared love of reindeer. In one script, they were raised apart. In another, Anna was jilted at the altar. Buck had introduced characters to explain the origins of Elsa’s curse, and had tried creating another love interest. Nothing worked. Every time he solved one problem—by making Anna more likable, for instance, or Elsa less bitter—dozens of others popped up.
“Every movie sucks at first,” said Bobby Lopez, one of Frozen’s songwriters. “But this was like a puzzle where every piece we added upset how everything else fit. And we knew time was running out.”
While most animated projects are given four or five years to mature, Frozen was on an accelerated schedule. The movie had been in full production for less than a year, but because another Disney movie had recently collapsed, executives had moved Frozen’s release date to November 2013, just a year and a half away. “We had to find answers fast,” said Peter Del Vecho, the film’s producer. “But they couldn’t feel clichéd or like a bunch of stories jammed together. The movie had to work emotionally. It was a pretty stressful time.”
This conundrum of how to spur innovation on a deadline—or, put another way, how to make the creative process more productive—isn’t unique to filmmaking, of course. Every day, students, executives, artists, policy makers, and millions of other people confront problems that require inventive answers delivered as quickly as possible. As the economy changes, and our capacity to achieve creative insights becomes more important than ever, the need for fast originality is even more urgent.
For many people, in fact, figuring out how to accelerate innovation is among their most important jobs. “We’re obsessed with the productivity of the creative process,” said Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and cofounder of Pixar. “We think it’s something that can be managed poorly or well, and if we get the creative process right, we find innovations faster. But if we don’t manage it right, good ideas are suffocated.”
Inside the story trust, the conversation about Frozen was winding down. “It seems to me like there’s a few different ideas competing inside this movie,” Lasseter told Buck, the director. “We’ve got Elsa’s story, we’ve got Anna’s story, and we’ve got Prince Hans and Olaf the snowman. Each of those stories has great elements. There’s a lot of really good material here, but you need to make it into one narrative that connects with the audience. You need to find the movie’s core.”
Lasseter rose from his seat. “You should take as long as you need to find the answers,” he said. “But it would be great if it happened soon.”
In 1949, a choreographer named Jerome Robbins contacted his friends Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents with an audacious idea. They should collaborate on a new kind of musical, he told them, modeled on Romeo and Juliet but set in modern-day New York City. They could integrate classical ballet with opera and experimental theater, and maybe bring in contemporary jazz and modernist drama, as well. Their goal, Robbins said, should be to establish the avant-garde on Broadway.
Robbins was already famous for creating theater—as well as a life—that pushed boundaries. He was bisexual at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He had changed his name from Jerome Rabinowitz to Jerome Robbins to dodge the anti-Semitism he worried would doom his career. He had named friends as Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee, terrified that if he didn’t cooperate, his sexuality would be publicly revealed and he would be shunned. He was a bully and a perfectionist and so despised by dancers that they sometimes refused to speak to him off the stage. But few refused his invitations to perform. He was widely acknowledged—revered, actually—as one of the most creative artists of his time.
Robbins’s Romeo and Juliet idea was particularly bold because big Broadway musicals, in those days, tended to adhere to fairly predictable blueprints. Stories were built around a male and a female lead who pushed the plot along with dialogue that was spoken, not sung. There were choruses and dancers, as well as elaborate sets and a few duets about midway through each show. The elements of plot, song, and dance, however, weren’t intertwined as they were in, say, ballet, where the story and dancing are one, or opera, where dialogue is sung and music shapes the drama as much as any actor on the stage.
For this new show, Robbins wanted to try something different. “Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together?” Robbins later said. “Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet?” The three men wanted to create something that felt modern yet timeless. When Bernstein and Laurents saw a newspaper article about race riots, they proposed making their musical about two lovers—one Puerto Rican, the other white—whose families were affiliated with warring gangs. The name of the show, they decided, would be West Side Story.
Over the next few years the men traded scripts, scores, and choreography ideas. They mailed one another drafts during their long months apart. After half a decade of work, though, Robbins was impatient. This musical was important, he wrote to Bernstein and Laurents. It would break new ground. They needed to finish the script. To speed things up, he suggested, they should stop trying to do something new at every turn. Instead, they should stick with conventions they knew, from trial and error, had worked in other shows. But they should combine those conventions in novel ways.
For instance, they had been wrestling with the first meeting between Tony and Maria, the musical’s main characters. They should take a page from Shakespeare, Robbins suggested, and have the lovers see each other across a dance floor. But it should be made contemporary, a place where “a wild mambo is in progress with the kids doing all the violent improvisation of jitterbugging.”
For the battle in which Tony kills his enemy, Robbins said that the choreography ought to imitate the way battles are staged in motion pictures. “The fight scene must be provoked immediately,” Robbins wrote, “or else we’re boring the audience.” During a dramatic encounter between Tony and Maria, they needed something that echoed the classical marriage scene of Romeo and Juliet, but also incorporated the theatricality of opera and a bit of the sentimental romanticism that Broadway audiences loved.
The biggest challenge, however, was figuring out which theatrical conventions were truly powerful and which had become clichés. Laurents, for example, had written a script that was divided into the traditional three acts, but it’s “a serious mistake to let the audience out of our grip for two intermissions,” Robbins wrote. Motion pictures had proven that you can keep audiences in their seats if the action is always progressing. What’s more, Robbins wrote to Laurents, “I like best the sections in which you have gone on your own path, writing in your own style with your own characters and imagination. Least successful are those in which I sense the intimidation of Shakespeare standing behind you.” Similarly, roles that were too predictable had to be avoided at all costs. “You are way off the track with the whole character of Anita,” Robbins wrote to his colleagues. “She is the typical downbeat blues torch-bearing 2nd character,” he remarked. “Forget Anita.”
By 1957—eight years after they had first embarked on the project—the men were finally done. They had combined different kinds of theater to create something new: a musical where dance, song, and dialogue were integrated into a story of racism and injustice that was as contemporary as the newspapers sold outside the theater doors. All that was left was to find financial backers. Nearly every producer they approached turned them down. The show was too different from what audiences expected, the moneymen said. Finally, Robbins found financiers willing to support a staging in Washington, D.C.—far enough from Broadway, everyone hoped, that if the show bombed, the news might not spread to New York.
The method Robbins suggested for jump-starting the creative process—taking proven, conventional ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways—is remarkably effective, it turns out. It’s a tactic all kinds of people have used to spark creative successes. In 2011, two Northwestern University business school professors began examining how such combinations occur in scientific research. “Combinations of existing material are centerpieces in theories of creativity, whether in the arts, the sciences, or commercial innovation,” they wrote in the journal Science in 2013. And yet most original ideas grow out of old concepts, and “the building blocks of new ideas are often embodied in existing knowledge.” Why are some people so much better at taking those old blocks and stacking them in new ways, the researchers wondered?
The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers. They had access to a database of 17.9 million scientific manuscripts published in more than twelve thousand journals. The researchers knew there was no objective way to measure each paper’s creativity, but they could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes. “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. The combination has happened thousands of times,” Uzzi told me. “But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.” Moreover, by focusing primarily on the most popular manuscripts in the database—those studies that had been cited by other researchers thousands of times—they could estimate each manuscript’s creative input. “To get into the top 5 percent of the most frequently cited studies, you have to say something pretty new,” Uzzi said.
Uzzi and Jones—along with their colleagues Satyam Mukherjee and Mike Stringer—wrote an algorithm to evaluate the 17.9 million papers. By examining how many different ideas each study contained, whether those ideas had been mentioned together previously, and if the papers were popular or ignored, their program could rate each paper’s novelty. Then they could look to see if the most creative papers shared any traits.
The analysis told them that some creative papers were short; others were long. Some were written by individuals; the majority were composed by teams. Some studies were authored by researchers at the beginning of their careers; others came from more senior faculty.
In other words, there were lots of different ways to write a creative study.
But almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, 90 percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.
If you consider some of the biggest intellectual innovations of the past half century, you can see this dynamic at work. The field of behavioral economics, which has remade how companies and governments operate, emerged in the mid-1970s and ’80s when economists began applying long-held principles from psychology to economics, and asking questions like why perfectly sensible people bought lottery tickets. Or, to cite other juxtapositions of familiar ideas in novel ways, today’s Internet social networking companies grew when software programmers borrowed public health models that were originally developed to explain how viruses spread and applying them to how friends share updates. Physicians can now map complicated genetic sequences rapidly because researchers have transported the math of Bayes’ rule into laboratories examining how genes evolve.
Fostering creativity by juxtaposing old ideas in original ways isn’t new. Historians have noted that most of Thomas Edison’s inventions were the result of importing ideas from one area of science into another. Edison and his colleagues “used their knowledge of electromagnetic power from the telegraph industry, where they first worked, to transfer old ideas [to the industries of] lighting, telephone, phonograph, railway and mining,” two Stanford professors wrote in 1997. Researchers have consistently found that labs and companies encourage such combinations to spark creativity. A 1997 study of the consumer product design firm IDEO found that most of the company’s biggest successes originated as “combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries.” IDEO’s designers created a top-selling water bottle, for example, by mixing a standard water carafe with the leak-proof nozzle of a shampoo container.
The power of combining old ideas in new ways also extends to finance, where the prices of stock derivatives are calculated by mixing formulas originally developed to describe the motion of dust particles with gambling techniques. Modern bike helmets exist because a designer wondered if he could take a boat’s hull, which can withstand nearly any collision, and design it in the shape of a hat. It even reaches to parenting, where one of the most popular baby books—Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946—combined Freudian psychotherapy with traditional child-rearing techniques.
“A lot of the people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen,” said Uzzi. “They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups. They’ve seen a lot of different people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work.”
Within sociology, these middlemen are often referred to as idea or innovation brokers. In one study published in 2004, a sociologist named Ronald Burt studied 673 managers at a large electronics company and found that ideas that were most consistently ranked as “creative” came from people who were particularly talented at taking concepts from one division of the company and explaining them to employees in other departments. “People connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving,” Burt wrote. “The between-group brokers are more likely to express ideas, less likely to have ideas dismissed, and more likely to have ideas evaluated as valuable.” They were more credible when they made suggestions, Burt said, because they could say which ideas had already succeeded somewhere else.
“This is not creativity born of genius,” Burt wrote. “It is creativity as an import-export business.”
What’s particularly interesting, however, is that there isn’t a specific personality associated with being an innovation broker. Studies indicate that almost anyone can become a broker—as long as they’re pushed the right way.
Before rehearsals began for West Side Story, Robbins went to his colleagues and said he was dissatisfied with the musical’s first scene. As initially envisioned, the show opened in a traditional manner with the play’s characters introducing themselves via dialogue that illustrated the plot’s central tensions:
A-rab, a teenager dressed in the uniform of his gang (THE JETS) comes across the stage. Suddenly, two DARK-SKINNED BOYS plummet down from a wall, crashing A-rab to the ground and attacking him. The attackers run off and then several boys—dressed like A-rab—run on from the opposite side.
He was hit hard.
An’ right on our own turf!
Riff, the leader of THE JETS, enters
Straight factualities, A-rab. Who did it?
Those buggin’ Puerto Ricans!
We’re supposed to be the champeens in this area—
The PR’s ’re crowdin’ us like their lousy families ’re crowdin’ ours!
Let’s have some action, Riff.
Let’s put it on the PRs!
Whoa, buddy boys! Whadda you diapers know from rumbles? The state of your ignorance is appalling. How do you think the top brass go about a war?
First—you dispatch scouts to the enemy leader to arrange a war council. Then—
Then you go!
We oughta get Tony so we can take a vote.
He always does what you say anyway. C’mon!
In this version of the opening scene, the audience has learned the basics of the plot within moments of the curtain’s rise. They know there are two gangs divided along ethnic lines. They know these gangs are engaged in an ongoing battle. They know there is a hierarchy within each gang—Riff is clearly the leader of the Jets—as well as a certain formality: A rumble can’t occur without a meeting of the war council. The audience feels the energy and tension (Crack-O Jack-O!) and they learn about another character, Tony, who seems important. All in all, an effective opening.
Robbins discarded it. Too predictable, he said. Lazy and clichéd. Gangs don’t just fight, they own territory, the same way a dancer owns a stage. The opening number of a musical about immigrants and the energy of New York ought to feel ambitious and dangerous—it needed to make the audience feel the same way Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents had felt when they had come up with this idea. They, the playwrights themselves, were strivers, Robbins told them. They were Jews and outcasts, and this musical was an opportunity to draw on their own experiences of exclusion and ambition and put their own emotions on the stage.
“Robbins could be brutal,” said Amanda Vaill, Robbins’s biographer. “He could sniff out creative complacency and force people to come up with something newer and better than what everyone else settled for.” Robbins was an innovation broker, and he forced everyone around him to become brokers, as well.
This is what appeared onstage—and, later, on movie screens—in what eventually became known as “The West Side Story Prologue.” It is one of the most influential pieces of theater in the last sixty years:
The opening is musical: half-danced, half-mimed. It is primarily a condensation of the growing rivalry between two teen-age gangs, THE JETS and THE SHARKS, each of which has its own prideful uniform. THE JETS—sideburned, long-haired—are vital, restless, sardonic; The SHARKS are Puerto Ricans.
The stage opens with THE JETS on an asphalt court, snapping their fingers as the orchestra plays. A handball strikes the fence and the music stops. One of the boys, RIFF, indicates with a nod to return the handball to its frightened owner. RIFF’s subordinate complies and the music restarts.
THE JETS saunter across the court, and as the music swells, they pirouette. They cry “yeah!” and begin a series of ronds de jambe en l’air. They own this asphalt. They are poor and ignored by society, but right now, they own this space.
A TEENAGER, the leader of THE SHARKS, appears. THE JETS stop moving. Other SHARKS appear, and they start snapping, and then whirl in a series of pirouettes of their own. The SHARKS declare their own ownership of the stage.
The two gangs skirmish, contesting territory and dominance, pantomiming threats and apologies, competing but never outright fighting until dozens of SHARKS and JETS are flying across the stage, almost but never touching as they taunt and challenge each other. Then a SHARK trips a JET. The JET pushes his attacker. A cymbal starts chiming and everyone is suddenly atop each other, kicking and punching until a police whistle freezes them and the gangs unite, pretending to be friends in front of OFFICER KRUPKE.
For nine minutes, no dialogue is spoken. Everything is communicated through dance.
The first time West Side Story was performed in 1957, the audience wasn’t certain what to make of it. The actors were dressed in everyday clothes but moved as if in a classical ballet. The dances were as formalized as Swan Lake, but described street fights, an attempted rape, and skirmishes with cops. The music echoed the symphonic tritones of Wagner but also the rhythms of Latin jazz. Throughout the musical, the actors switched between song and dialogue interchangeably.
“The ground rules by which West Side Story is played are laid out in the opening number,” the theater historian Larry Stempel later wrote. “Before an intelligible sentence has had a chance to be uttered, or a single phrase of music sung, dance has conveyed the essential dramatic information.”
When the curtain went down on opening night, there was silence. The audience had just seen a musical about rumbles and murder, songs describing bigotry and prejudice and dances in which hoodlums moved like ballerinas and actors sung slang words with the power of opera stars.
As everyone prepared to take their positions for the curtain call, “we ran to our spaces and faced the audience holding hands. The curtain went up and we looked at the audience, and they looked at us, and we looked at them, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear Lord, it’s a bomb!’ ” said Carol Lawrence, who played the original Maria. “And then, as if Jerry had choreographed it, they jumped to their feet. I’d never heard people stamping and yelling, and by that time, Lenny had worked his way backstage, and he came at the final curtain and walked to me, put his arms around me and we wept.”
West Side Story went on to become one of the most popular and influential musicals in history. It succeeded by mixing originality and convention to create something new. It took old ideas and put them in novel settings so gracefully that many people never realized they were watching the familiar become unique. Robbins forced his colleagues to become brokers, to put their own experiences onto the stage. “That was a real achievement,” Robbins later said.
The space assigned to the Frozen team for their daily meetings was large, airy, and comfortable. The walls were covered with sketches of castles and ice caves, friendly-looking reindeer, a snow monster named “Marshmallow,” and dozens of concepts for trolls. Each morning at nine A.M., the director, Chris Buck, and his core team of writers and artists would assemble with their coffee cups and to-do lists. The songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez would videoconference in from their home in Brooklyn. Then everyone would start panicking about how little time was left.
Anxiety was particularly high the morning after the disastrous screening and meeting with the story trust. From the beginning, the Frozen team had known they couldn’t simply retell an old fairy tale. They wanted to make a movie that said something new. “It couldn’t just be that, at the end, a prince gives someone a kiss and that’s the definition of true love,” Buck told me. They wanted the film to say something bigger, about how girls don’t need to be saved by Prince Charming, about how sisters can save themselves. The Frozen team wanted to turn the standard princess formula on its head. But that’s why they were in such trouble now.
“It was a really big ambition,” said Jennifer Lee, who joined the Frozen team as a writer after working on another Disney film, Wreck-It Ralph. “And it was particularly hard because every movie needs tension, but if the tension in Frozen is between the sisters, how do you make them both likable? We tried a jealousy plotline, but it felt petty. We tried a revenge story, but Bobby kept saying we needed an optimistic heroine instead of feuds. The story trust was right: The movie needed to connect emotionally. But we didn’t know how to get there without falling into clichés.”
Everyone in the room was well aware they had only eighteen months to finish the movie. Peter Del Vecho, the producer, asked them all to close their eyes.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things,” he said. “It’s okay that we haven’t found the answers yet. Every movie goes through this, and every wrong step gets us closer to what works.
“Now, instead of focusing on all the things that aren’t working, I want you to think about what could be right. I want you to envision your biggest hopes. If we could do anything, what would you want to see on the screen?”
The group sat quietly for a few minutes. Then people opened their eyes and started describing what had excited them about this project in the first place. Some had been drawn to Frozen because it offered a chance to upend the way girls are portrayed in films. Others said they were inspired by the idea of a movie where two sisters come together.
“My sister and I fought a lot as kids,” Lee told the room. Her parents had divorced when Lee was young. She had eventually moved to Manhattan while her sister became a high school teacher in upstate New York. Then, when Lee was in her early twenties, her boyfriend drowned in a boating accident. Her sister had understood what she was going through at that moment, had been there at a time of need. “There’s this moment when you start to see your sibling as a person, instead of a reflection of yourself,” Lee told the room. “I think that’s what’s been bothering me the most about this script. If you have two sisters and one of them is the villain and one is a hero, it doesn’t feel real. That doesn’t happen in real life. Siblings don’t grow apart because one is good and one is bad. They grow apart because they’re both messes and then they come together when they realize they need each other. That’s what I want to show.”
Over the next month, the Frozen team focused on the relationship between Anna and Elsa, the movie’s sisters. In particular, the filmmakers drew on their own experiences to figure out how the siblings related. “We can always find the right story when we start asking ourselves what feels true,” Del Vecho told me. “The thing that holds us back is when we forget to use our lives, what’s inside our heads, as raw material. That’s why the Disney method is so powerful, because it pushes us to dig deeper and deeper until we put ourselves on the screen.”
Jerry Robbins pushed his collaborators in West Side Story to draw on their own experiences to become creative brokers. The Toyota Production System unlocked employees’ capacity to suggest innovations by giving them more control. The Disney system does something different. It forces people to use their own emotions to write dialogue for cartoon characters, to infuse real feelings into situations that, by definition, are unreal and fantastical. This method is worth studying because it suggests a way that anyone can become an idea broker: by drawing on their own lives as creative fodder. We all have a natural instinct to overlook our emotions as creative material. But a key part of learning how to broker insights from one setting to another, to separate the real from the clichéd, is paying more attention to how things make us feel. “Creativity is just connecting things,” Apple cofounder Steve Jobs said in 1996. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” People become creative brokers, in other words, when they learn to pay attention to how things make them react and feel.
“Most people are too narrow in how they think about creativity,” Ed Catmull, the president of Disney Animation, told me. “So we spend a huge amount of time pushing people to go deeper, to look further inside themselves, to find something that’s real and can be magical when it’s put into the mouth of a character on a screen. We all carry the creative process inside us; we just need to be pushed to use it sometimes.”
This lesson isn’t limited to movies or Broadway. The Post-it note, for instance, was invented by a chemical engineer who, frustrated by bookmarks falling out of his church hymnal, decided to use a new adhesive to make them stay put. Cellophane was developed by an exasperated chemist looking for a way to protect tablecloths from wine spills. Infant formula was created, in part, by an exhausted father who suspended vegetable nutrients in powder so he could feed his crying child in the middle of the night. Those inventors looked to their own lives as the raw materials for innovation. What’s notable is that, in each case, they were often in an emotional state. We’re more likely to recognize discoveries hidden in our own experiences when necessity pushes us, when panic or frustrations cause us to throw old ideas into new settings. Psychologists call this “creative desperation.” Not all creativity relies on panic, of course. But research by the cognitive psychologist Gary Klein indicates that roughly 20 percent of creative breakthroughs are preceded by an anxiety akin to the stress that accompanied Frozen’s development, or the pressures Robbins forced onto his West Side Story collaborators. Effective brokers aren’t cool and collected. They’re often worried and afraid.
A few months after the story trust meeting, the songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez were walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, anxious about all the songs they needed to write, when Kristen asked, “What would it feel like if you were Elsa?” As they walked past swingsets and joggers, Kristen and Bobby began discussing what they would do if they were cursed and despised for something they couldn’t control. “What if you tried to be good your entire life and it didn’t matter because people constantly judged you?” she asked.
Kristen knew this feeling. She had felt other parents’ looks when she let their daughters eat ice cream instead of healthy snacks. She’d felt glances when she and Bobby let their girls watch an iPad inside a restaurant because they wanted a moment of peace. Perhaps Kristen wasn’t cursed with some deadly power—but she knew what it felt like to be judged. It didn’t feel fair. It wasn’t her fault that she wanted a career. It wasn’t her fault that she wanted to be a good mom and be a good wife and a successful songwriter, and so, inevitably, that meant things like home-packed snacks and sparkling dinner conversation—not to mention thank-you notes and exercise and replying to emails—sometimes fell by the wayside. She didn’t want to apologize for not being perfect. She didn’t think she needed to. And she didn’t think Elsa should have to apologize for being flawed, either.
“Elsa has tried to do everything right, all her life,” Kristen said to Bobby. “Now she’s being punished for being herself and the only way out is for her to stop caring, to let it all go.”
As they walked, they began riffing, singing snippets of lyrics. What if they wrote a song that started with a fairy-tale opening, Bobby suggested, like the stories they read to their girls at night? Then Elsa could talk about the pressures of being a good girl, said Kristen. She jumped up on a picnic bench. “She could change into a woman,” she said. “That’s what growing up is, letting go of the things you shouldn’t have to care about.”
She began singing to an audience of trees and trash cans, trying out lyrics for Elsa to convey that she’s done being the good girl, that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore. Bobby was recording her impromptu song on his iPhone.
Kristen spread her arms.
Let it go, let it go.
That perfect girl is gone.
“I think you just figured out the chorus,” said Bobby.
Back in their apartment, they recorded a rough draft of the song in their makeshift studio. In the background were the clinks of plates from the Greek restaurant downstairs. The next day, they emailed it to Buck, Lee, and the rest of the Frozen team. It was part power ballad and part classical aria, but infused with Kristen’s and Bobby’s frustrations and the emancipation they felt when they let go of people’s expectations.
When the Frozen team gathered at the Disney headquarters the next morning, they put “Let It Go” on the sound system. Chris Montan, Disney’s head of music, slammed his hand on the table.
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s our song. That’s what this whole movie is about!”
“I have to go rewrite the beginning of the movie,” said Lee.
“I was so happy,” Lee told me later. “So relieved. We had struggled for so long, and then we heard ‘Let It Go’ and, finally, it felt like we had broken through. We could see the movie. We had been carrying the pieces in our heads, but we needed someone to show us ourselves in the characters, to make them familiar. ‘Let It Go’ made Elsa feel like one of us.”
Seven months later, the Frozen team had the first two-thirds of the film figured out. They knew how to make Anna and Elsa likable while driving them apart to create the tension the film needed. They knew how to portray the sisters as hopeful yet troubled. They had even transformed Olaf—the f’ing snowman—into a lovable sidekick. Everything was falling into place.
Except they had no idea how to end the film.
“It was this huge puzzle,” said Andrew Millstein, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “We tried everything. We knew we wanted Anna to sacrifice herself to save Elsa. We knew we wanted the movie’s true love to exist between the sisters. But we had to earn that ending. It had to feel real.”
When filmmakers get stuck at Disney, it’s referred to as spinning. “Spinning occurs because you’re in a rut and can’t see your project from different perspectives anymore,” said Ed Catmull. So much of the creative process relies on achieving distance, on not becoming overly attached to your creation. But the Frozen team had become so comfortable with their vision of the sisters, so relieved to have figured out the movie’s basics, so grateful that the creative desperation had lifted a bit, that they had lost their ability to see other paths.
This problem is familiar to anyone who has worked on a long-term creative project. As innovation brokers bring together different perspectives, a creative energy is often released that is heightened by a small amount of tension—such as the pressure that comes from deadlines, or clashes that result when people from different backgrounds meld ideas, or the stresses of collaborators’ pushing us to do more. And these “tensions can lead to greater creativity, because all those differences trigger divergent thinking, the ability to see something new when you are forced to look at an idea from someone else’s point of view,” said Francesca Gino, who studies the psychology of creativity at Harvard Business School. “But when that tension disappears, when you solve the big problem and everyone starts seeing things the same way, people also sometimes start thinking alike and forgetting all the options they have.”
The Frozen team had solved almost all their problems. No one wanted to lose all the progress they had already made. But they couldn’t figure out how to end the film. “You start spinning when your flexibility drops,” said Catmull. “You get so devoted to what you’ve already created. But you have to be willing to kill your darlings to go forward. If you can’t let go of what you’ve worked so hard to achieve, it ends up trapping you.”
So Disney’s executives made a change.
“We had to shake things up,” said Catmull. “We had to jolt everyone. So we made Jenn Lee a second director.”
In one sense, this change should not have made a huge difference. Lee was already the film’s writer. Naming her as a second director, with equal authority to Chris Buck, didn’t alter who was participating in the daily conversations. It didn’t add any new voices to meetings. And Lee herself was the first to admit that she was as stuck as everyone else.
But, Disney executives hoped, disrupting the team’s dynamics just slightly might be enough to stop everyone from spinning in place.
In the 1950s, a biologist named Joseph Connell began traveling between his home in California and the rain forests and coral reefs of Australia in an effort to understand why some parts of the world housed such incredible biological diversity while other regions were so ecologically bland.
Connell had picked Australia for two reasons. First, he hated learning new languages. Second, Australia’s forests and seascapes offered perfect examples of biological diversity and homogeneity in close proximity. There were long stretches of the Australian coast where hundreds of different kinds of corals, fish, and sea vegetation lived in very close quarters. Less than a quarter mile away, in another portion of the sea that seemed essentially the same, that diversity would plummet and you might find only one or two kinds of coral and plants. Similarly, some pockets of Australia’s rain forests contained dozens of different types of trees, lichen, mushrooms, and vines flourishing side by side. But just a hundred yards away, that would dwindle to just one species of each. Connell wanted to understand why nature’s diversity—its capacity for creative origination—was distributed so unevenly.
His quest began in the Queensland rain forests: 12,600 square miles that contain everything from forest canopies to eucalyptus groves, as well as the Daintree tropical forest, where conifers and ferns grow right at the edge of the sea, and the Eungella National Park, where trees are so dense that, at ground level, it can be nearly lightless in the middle of the day. As Connell spent his days walking under green canopies and hacking through thick foliage, he found pockets of biodiversity that seemed to erupt out of nowhere. Then, just a few minutes away, that medley would dwindle until just one or two species remained. What explained this diversity and homogeneity?
Eventually, Connell began noticing something similar at the center of each pocket of biodiversity: There was often evidence that a large tree had fallen. Sometimes he would find a decaying trunk or a deep indentation in the soil. In other verdant pockets, he found charred remains underneath the topsoil, suggesting that a fire—perhaps caused by lightning—had blazed for a brief but intense period before the rain forest’s dampness had extinguished the flames.
These fallen trees and fires, Connell came to believe, played a crucial role in allowing species to emerge. Why? Because at some point, there had been a “gap in the forest where the trees had come down or had burned, and that gap was big enough to let sunlight in and allow other species to compete,” Connell told me. Retired now, he lives in Santa Barbara, but he remembers the details from those trips. “By the time I found some areas, years had passed since the fire or the tree fall, and so new trees had grown in their place and were blocking out the sun again,” he said. “But there had been a time when enough light had made it through that other species were able to claim some territory. There had been some disturbance that had given new plants a chance to compete.”
In those regions where trees hadn’t fallen or fires hadn’t occurred, one species had become dominant and had crowded out all competitors. Put differently, once a species solved the problem of survival, it pushed other alternatives away. But if something altered the ecosystem just a little bit, then biodiversity exploded.
“Only up to a point, though,” Connell told me. “If the gap in the forest was too big, it had the opposite effect.” In those parts of the rain forest where loggers had cleared entire fields, where a huge storm had wiped out whole sections of the forest, or where a fire had spread too far, there was much less diversity, even decades later. If the trauma to the landscape was too great, only the hardiest trees or vines could survive.
Next, Connell looked at reefs along the Australian coast. Here, too, he found a similar pattern. In some places, there was a dizzying assortment of coral and seaweed living in close proximity while, just a few minutes by boat away, one species of fast-growing coral had dominated every square inch. The difference, Connell found, was the frequency and intensity of waves and storms. In those areas with high biodiversity, midsized waves and moderate storms came through occasionally. Alternately, in places with no waves or storms, just a handful of species dominated. Or, when waves were too powerful or storms came through too often, they would scrub the reef clean.
It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance—like a tree fall or an occasional storm—that temporarily upset the natural environment. But the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. “Intermediate disturbances are critical,” Connell told me.
Within biology, this has become known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that “local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent.” There are other theories that explain diversification in different ways, but the intermediate disturbance hypothesis has become a staple of biology.
“The idea is that every habitat is colonized by a variety of species, but over time one or a few tend to win out,” said Steve Palumbi, the director of Stanford’s marine station in Monterey, California. This is called “competitive exclusion.” If there are no disturbances to the environment, then the strongest species become so entrenched that nothing else can compete. Similarly, if there are massive, frequent disturbances, only the hardiest species grow back. But if there are intermediate disturbances, then numerous species bloom, and nature’s creative capacities flourish.
Human creativity, of course, is different from biological diversity. It’s an imprecise analogy to compare a falling tree in the Australian rain forest to a change in management at Disney. Let’s play with the comparison for a moment, though, because it offers a valuable lesson: When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper. So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.
“The thing I noticed, when I first became a director, was that the change was subtle, but at the same time, very real,” Jennifer Lee told me. “When you’re a writer, there’s certain things you know a film needs, but you’re just one voice. You don’t want to seem defensive or presumptuous because other people have just as many suggestions and your job is to integrate everyone’s ideas.
“A director, though, is in charge. So when I became a director, I felt like I had to listen even more closely to what everyone was saying because that was my job now. And as I listened, I started picking up on things I hadn’t noticed before.”
Some of the animators, for instance, were pushing to use the blizzard at the end of the film as a metaphor for the characters’ internal turmoil. Others thought they should withhold any foreshadowing, to make the ending a surprise. As a writer, Lee had viewed those suggestions as devices. But now she understood people were asking for clarity, for a direction in which every choice—from the weather on-screen to choices about what is hidden or revealed—reflected a core idea.
A few months after Lee’s promotion, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songwriter, sent Lee an email. They had been speaking almost every day for a year at this point. They talked at night and sent each other texts during the day. Their friendship didn’t end when Lee became a director. But it changed a little bit.
Kristen was riding a school bus, chaperoning her second-grade daughter on a class trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, when she pulled out her phone and typed a message to Lee.
“Yesterday I went to therapy,” she wrote. She and her therapist had discussed the Frozen team members’ differing opinions about how the movie should end. They had talked about Lee’s ascension to director. “I was discussing dynamics and politics and power and all that bullshit and who do you listen to and how do [you] start,” she typed. “Then she asked me, ‘Why do you do it?’
“And after parsing out the money and ego stuff, it all really comes down to the fact that I have things I need to share about the human experience,” Anderson-Lopez typed. “I want to take what I have learned or felt or experienced and help people by sharing it.
“What is it about this frozen story that you, Bobby and I HAVE to say?” Kristen asked. “For me, it has something to do with not getting frozen in roles that are dictated by circumstances beyond our control.”
Lee herself was the perfect example of this. Lee had come to Disney as a new film school graduate with little besides a young daughter and a fresh divorce and student loans, and had quickly become a screenwriter at one of the biggest studios on earth. Now she was the first female director in Disney’s history. Kristen and Bobby were examples of people escaping their circumstances, as well. They had fought for years to build the careers they wanted, even when everyone said it was ridiculous to hope they could support themselves by writing songs. Now, here they were, with hit Broadway shows and the life they had always hoped for.
To earn Frozen’s ending, Kristen said, they had to find a way to share that sense of possibility with the audience.
“What is it for you?” Kristen typed.
Lee replied twenty-three minutes later. It was seven in the morning in Los Angeles.
“I love your therapist,” she wrote, “and you.” All the different members of the Frozen team had their own ideas for the movie. Everyone on the story trust had become locked into their own concept of how the film should end. But none of them fit together perfectly, Lee felt.
However, Frozen could have only one ending. Someone had to make a choice. And the right decision, Lee wrote, is that “fear destroys us, love heals us. Anna’s journey should be about learning what love is; it’s that simple.” At the end of the film, “when she sees her sister out on the fjords, she completes her arc by the ultimate act of true love: sacrificing your needs for someone else’s. LOVE is a greater force than FEAR. Go with love.”
Becoming a director forced Lee to see things differently—and that small jolt was enough to help her realize what the film needed, and to shift everyone else enough to agree with her.
Later that month, Lee sat down with John Lasseter.
“We need clarity,” she told him. “The core of this movie isn’t about good and evil, because that doesn’t happen in real life. And this movie isn’t about love versus hate. That’s not why sisters grow apart.
“This is a movie about love and fear. Anna is all about love, and Elsa is all about fear. Anna has been abandoned, so she throws herself into the arms of Prince Charming because she doesn’t know the difference between real love and infatuation. She has to learn that love is about sacrifice. And Elsa has to learn that you can’t be afraid of who you are, you can’t run away from your own powers. You have to embrace your strengths.
“That’s what we need to do with the ending, show that love is stronger than fear.”
“Say it again,” Lasseter told her.
Lee described her theory of love versus fear again, explaining how Olaf, the snowman, embodies innocent love while Prince Hans demonstrates that love without sacrifice isn’t really love at all; it’s narcissism.
“Say it again,” Lasseter said.
Lee said it again.
“Now, go tell the team,” said Lasseter.
In June 2013, a few months before the movie was set to open, the Frozen team flew to a theater in Arizona to conduct a test screening. What appeared on the screen was completely different from what had been shown in the Disney screening room fifteen months earlier. Anna, the younger sister, was now bubbly, optimistic, and lonely. Elsa was loving but scared of her own powers and tortured by the memory of accidentally injuring her sister when they were young. Elsa runs away to an ice castle, intending to live far from humanity—but she inadvertently plunges her kingdom into an endless winter and partially freezes Anna’s heart.
Anna begins searching for a prince in the hope that his true love’s kiss will melt the ice in her chest. But the man she finds—Prince Hans—turns out to be intent on taking the throne for himself. Prince Hans imprisons Elsa and abandons the slowly freezing Anna, intent on killing both sisters so he can seize the crown.
Elsa escapes from her cell and, near the end of the movie, is running across the frozen fjords, fleeing the corrupt prince. Anna is growing weaker as the ice inside her chest consumes her heart. A blizzard swirls around the sisters and Hans as they all find one another on the frozen sea. Anna is almost dead from the chill inside her body. Hans raises his sword, ready to slay Elsa and put the throne within his reach. As Hans’s blade falls, however, Anna steps in front of the blow. Her body turns to ice just as the sword descends, and it strikes her frozen body rather than her sister. By sacrificing herself, Anna has saved Elsa—and this act of devotion, this genuine demonstration of true love, finally melts Anna’s chest. She returns to life, and Elsa, released from the anxiety that she’ll hurt the people she loves, can now direct her powers to defeat the evil Hans. She knows now how to end the kingdom’s winter. The sisters, united, are powerful enough to overcome their enemies and their self-doubts. Hans is expelled, spring returns, and love defeats fear.
All the elements of a traditional Disney plot were included. There were princesses and ball gowns, a handsome prince, a wisecracking sidekick, and a stream of upbeat songs. But throughout the film, those elements had been disturbed, just enough, to let something new and different emerge. Prince Hans wasn’t charming—he was the villain. The princesses weren’t helpless; instead, they saved each other. True love didn’t arrive in a rescue—rather, it came from siblings learning to embrace their own strengths.
“When did this movie get so good?” Kristen Anderson-Lopez whispered to Peter Del Vecho as the screening ended. Frozen would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature of 2014. “Let It Go” would win the Academy Award for best original song. The film would become the top-grossing animated movie of all time.
Creativity can’t be reduced to a formula. At its core, it needs novelty, surprise, and other elements that cannot be planned in advance to seem fresh and new. There is no checklist that, if followed, delivers innovation on demand.
But the creative process is different. We can create the conditions that help creativity to flourish. We know, for example, that innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways. We know the odds of success go up when brokers—people with fresh, different perspectives, who have seen ideas in a variety of settings—draw on the diversity within their heads. We know that, sometimes, a little disturbance can help jolt us out of the ruts that even the most creative thinkers fall into, as long as those shake-ups are the right size.
If you want to become a broker and increase the productivity of your own creative process, there are three things that can help: First, be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you think and feel. That’s how we distinguish clichés from true insights. As Steve Jobs put it, the best designers are those who “have thought more about their experiences than other people.” Similarly, the Disney process asks filmmakers to look inward, to think about their own emotions and experiences until they find answers that make imaginary characters come alive. Jerry Robbins pushed his West Side Story collaborators to put their own aspirations and emotions on the stage. Look to your own life as creative fodder, and broker your own experiences into the wider world.
Second, recognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart. Rather, it’s the condition that helps make us flexible enough to seize something new. Creative desperation can be critical; anxiety is what often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. The path out of that turmoil is to look at what you know, to reinspect conventions you’ve seen work and try to apply them to fresh problems. The creative pain should be embraced.
Finally, remember that the relief accompanying a creative breakthrough, while sweet, can also blind us to seeing alternatives. It is critical to maintain some distance from what we create. Without self-criticism, without tension, one idea can quickly crowd out competitors. But we can regain that critical distance by forcing ourselves to critique what we’ve already done, by making ourselves look at it from a completely different perspective, by changing the power dynamics in the room or giving new authority to someone who didn’t have it before. Disturbances are essential, and we retain clear eyes by embracing destruction and upheaval, as long as we’re sensitive to making the disturbance the right size.
There’s an idea that runs through these three lessons: The creative process is, in fact, a process, something that can be broken down and explained. That’s important, because it means that anyone can become more creative; we can all become innovation brokers. We all have experiences and tools, disturbances and tensions that can make us into brokers—if, that is, we’re willing to embrace that desperation and upheaval and try to see our old ideas in new ways.
“Creativity is just problem solving,” Ed Catmull told me. “Once people see it as problem solving, it stops seeming like magic, because it’s not. Brokers are just people who pay more attention to what problems look like and how they’ve been solved before. People who are most creative are the ones who have learned that feeling scared is a good sign. We just have to learn how to trust ourselves enough to let the creativity out.”