Thursday, April 26, 2012

Are Disney's studios "just mickey mouse?"

The New York Times recently reported that Rich Ross, the head of the studio division of Walt Disney World,  stepped down under pressure. His boss, Robert Igar the CEO, is expected to have trouble filling the job. One reason is that the heads of the studios themselves, John Lasseter of Pixar, Kevin Feigel of Marvel and Sean Bailey of live-action Disney movies, are very independent and require little supervision. Certainly the first two heads represent brands in their own right. Moreover, the Times notes that Igar himself exercised close supervision of the studios. For example, “He visits Pixar’s headquarters outside of San Francisco several times a month, and discusses scripts with important Disney partners like the producer Joe Roth, who is working on “Oz.” Why should someone take a job squeezed between two power centers, the CEO and the studio heads?

One way to think of this situation is to consider it as an example of a disordered hierarchy with too many levels. Many decades ago, Elliot Jaques formulated the novel and powerful idea that hierarchies should have only the requisite number of levels.  The head of each level was responsible for planning over a particular time horizon. For example, a division chief might be responsible for plans that unfold over five years, while the CEO might be accountable to the board for plans that unfold over fifteen. Should two executives in adjoining hierarchical levels work within the same planning horizon, they were bound to get in each other’s way.  The result would be interpersonal conflict and organizational politics.

Jaques' view of what he called the “requisite organization” was quite strict. Organizational politics and interpersonal tensions resulted primarily from a disordered hierarchy. To eliminate tension and conflict he argued, don’t improve communication, don’t promote collaboration, don’t teach negotiation, instead, get the structure right! According to this way of thinking Ross should have been in a staff role, responsible for marketing the films and scheduling their release dates, without having any direct supervisory authority over the studio heads

One issue which Jaques did not convincingly address was why corporate leaders would the get the structure wrong. Was it simply a matter of ignorance or was the error motivated?

The Times article is suggestive here. The studios are less relevant to Walt Disney than then were some decades ago, accounting now for only 15% of the firm’s revenues. But is Walt Disney prepared to abandon its identity as a company whose fortunes and viability once depended on the vividness  and appeal of the fictional characters its films created? Moreover, even today, film characters, as the Times notes, can  fuel the sale of Disney’s  merchandise and the marketing of its theme parks.  One hypothesis is that Disney, and Igar as its CEO,  are betwixt and between, unsure which is the dog and which is the tail. Are films the crown jewels propelling sales, or are they incidental to the Disney enterprise as a vast entertainment company. If the former then Igar should supervise them directly, if the latter than he should not.

But why would Igar be stuck in this betwixt and between position? One hypothesis is that it takes considerable psychological work to let go of Disney’s older identity. After all, its very name is the name of  one of greatest film directors and producers in American history. He still casts a shadow, though he has been dead for 46 years.

Psychologists speak of the “work of mourning.”  Sometimes, to let go of a once treasured relationship which is no longer meaningful, one is led to discount it, to identify and dwell upon its limitations. This may happen when a protegee separates from a mentor, or an adult child, from a parent.  But sustaining  feelings of reverence and disregard at the same time is itself difficult, and  as psychoanalysis suggests, anxiety provoking.

There is an old phrase in American English, “It is just mickey mouse,” which is a way of announcing that something is trivial. Has the film division, which generates only 15% of the firm’s revenue become “just mickey mouse,” or more charitably, simply one instrument among many for generating profit?  If so can this reality be acknowledged?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post - refreshing to see Elliot Jaques applied so insightfully