How Anne Sweeney sparks employees to find the next great innovation at Disney Media Networks

Update your grassroots communications

Sweeney has another interesting take on technology: It can be added to old-fashioned forms of communication to spark growth. She likes brainstorming sessions with small groups of people and personal connections, but therein lies the rub: When every group under her charge is in production, she has roughly 15,000 employees. So she has to pepper in improving communication outlets in her goals.

“You need your culture to be fully informed on what’s going on,” Sweeney says. “That’s the reason our company is growing as fast as it is.

“My favorite thing to do is make sure people are educated, and my approach is really very grassroots, it is to bring people together in small and large groups, to walk the halls. We have a little series called ‘Coffee with Anne,’ and I pulled together 20 to 25 people.”

Those smaller groups started out as educational opportunities, but Sweeney quickly found that conversations about what was happening led people to throw out additional ideas. Now, whenever she’s traveling, they double as brainstorming sessions. She then gives every idea a chance by sharing the thoughts from one session with other groups and knows there’s life to one when she sees instant interest.

“I’ve actually funded some of the projects that have come out of that,” she says. “It’s promoted a lot of good cross-divisional work and ideas, some people have actually moved from division to division because they were inspired by someone they met at the coffee or someone they heard or something they wanted to work on next.”

Sweeney also keeps an open e-mail box where any employee can shoot an idea her way. Some ideas will fall flat when she brings them up to others, but to keep generating creativity, technological and personal outlets have to be available.

“It’s my job to start the conversation,” Sweeney says. “We don’t have a culture where people are punished when things don’t work out; we have a culture where experimentation is highly encouraged and celebrated.

“I do something every day; it could be eating lunch in the commissary, it can be picking up the phone and calling a few people
into my office to discuss a new idea.”

Sweeney spreads this agenda continuously to make a large company feel a bit smaller. She regularly puts videos of her presentations up on Disney’s internal Web site and hosts town-hall meetings when she travels. Each time she communicates Disney’s energy in a smaller setting, she is giving employees who might be reti-cent to speak more encouragement to come forward with ideas.

“It’s about making yourself available,” she says. “It’s about engaging them in larger conversations so they begin to learn what the company’s about, so they begin to understand the goals in a real way. It’s leaving the door open so they can wander in and say, ‘I have this huge idea, but I don’t know if it’s right for us.’ And it’s really developing a relationship where that idea can be on the table, rolled around, and, whether we end up doing it or not, everyone leaves feeling, ‘Well, that was great for the floor,’ and maybe that’s something that resurfaces a few months later, and its time has come. It’s encouraging a high level of communication and making sure people are constantly being educated about what our successes are, where our failures have been, where we are in our different business and what our expectations for growth are.”