The Dreamer. The Realist. The Critic.

A brilliantly simple and efficient approach to identifying magical ideas — from a guy named Walt.

“You can’t just let nature run wild.” — Walt Disney

Walt Disney was a visionary, an accomplished businessman, and a creative mind that set the imagination free. How was he able to achieve all this?

Not by letting every whim and fancy go wild, but by filtering ideas through a process to weed out the mediocre from the iconic. Walt Disney’s strategy was highlighted and modelled later in 1994 by NLP expert Robert Dilts, who defined the technique as Disney’s method for turning his dreams into reality. In this method, the team uses a specific cognitive flow, which builds parallel thinking that can be used to generate, evaluate, and critique ideas and solve potential problems within them.

His process utilized three stages. In each stage his team would take on a specific role and approach the process of generating ideas from the vantage point of (1) the Dreamer, (2) the Realist, and (3) the Critic.

1. The Dreamer

The Dreamer comes up with all kinds of ideas, wishes, and fantasies. Whether big or small, wild or charming, inside or outside the box, anything goes. Nothing is filtered. The Dreamer doesn’t sweat the details nor does he make excuses for why it won’t work. He has one task and one task only: Get the ideas out there into the world and on paper.

2. The Realist

The Realist then shows up and turns the Dreamer’s idea into something more practical and achievable. This stage involves examining how to make the idea happen, by organizing and sorting, by considering feasibility, and by clarifying and simplifying the essence of the idea.

3. The Critic

The Critic is the guy nobody wants around, but without whom great ideas go down in a sea of mediocrity and confusion. The Critic rigorously evaluates all the ideas and asks the tough questions. No stone is left unturned. No option is left unexplored. He will challenge the premises and assumptions made, find the weaknesses, and question whether the idea is even good enough.

Surviving The Process

If you were to take a hundred ideas and put them through this process, how many would make it? Probably not as many as you’d like. And that’s great news. The process reveals the golden ideas, the ones with the resilience to survive the process. And that is how Walt Disney determined which projects to proceed with and which ones to leave behind. Although the method was not fully developed by Walt Disney, it bridges the gap between imagination and reality.

The creative process unlocks the mind’s capabilities to dream and form unexpected ideas and solutions for existing problems. It allows us to think outside the norms and approach situations in unique and innovative ways. However, not all of these ultra-creative ideas and solutions can be applied in reality or developed into fleshed out plans and strategies. Therefore, one if the advantages of Disney’s creative method is finding a balance between both dream and reality in order to build a viable layout.

Creating Space

There is additional information that Walt took this process even further, moving from one physical space to another as the thinking shifted, using each space specifically and exclusively for each of the three stages. Imagine how powerful it would be if you were able to divide your physical space into mindsets.

In the context of conference rooms, it would look something like this:

Conference Room A is exclusively used for dreaming, for coming up with the broadest ideas possible. No filtering. No Realist. No Critic. In this space, everything is possible. No idea is too great, too wild, or too different.

Conference Room B is only for the Realist. It remains a place to find ways to convert dreams into reality. It is a space to make things happen, for establishing how, and discovering the logistical necessities in order to make the idea come to life.

Conference Room C is a room for the Critic to spoil the party, to find any additional weak spots that need to be fixed before an idea can go live. It examines potentials threats and critical flaws. Ideas are refined and further examined for merit.

This technique allows each approach to examine any idea fully, instead of from a one-third vantage point (Dreamer, Realist, Critic). How often are we torn on an idea because it’s so unique that we hesitate on the realistic application or we criticize the viability, and then we bounce back around to its creative, innovative approach again. In each space, we are able to shed the other voices in our heads and explore each one completely.

Give It A Try

I invite you to try these roles in your next project or brainstorming session. Focus on one role at a time. Do your best to only be in one frame of mind at a time. Ease the mind of your spoilers; they’ll have their chance with their chainsaws soon enough. Allow yourself to be a full-fledged Dreamer, then a staunch Realist and a finally a rigorous Critic. If your team lacks the discipline to focus on only one stage at a time, break it up into different rooms or physical spaces. Either your idea will not survive and you have to abandon it, or it survives and is ready for you take it to the next level.

Walt Disney takes the role of the Critic with a pair of animators, circa 1950.