Profiles in VUCA

You’ve worked for Disney for 13 years in different capacities. What do you currently do within the company?

It is my job to ensure Disney products are as widely available as possible across Brazil. This includes all licensed products and publishing. As a finance strategist, I have to figure out how to assure strong sales—not just this year, but next year, and beyond.

I work to make sure every member of the team has a forward-thinking attitude. For example, I ask them to see a contract as a strategic document that serves as the foundation for the next contract, and the one after that.

I also head up Disney’s Strategic Foresight team in Latin America, where we analyze emerging trends and patterns to get ahead of the curve. This futures intelligence then feeds into the business functions in the rest of the company—not just in big strategic decisions, but in how we think of our jobs day-to-day.

 

What path did you take to get into this role?

I’m an economist by training.

After obtaining my Master’s degree, my first job was in academia, at a university in Argentina. Then I delved into more finance and strategy roles, first at the Coca Cola company, and then my own consulting business.

It was around this time that I started working for Disney on a 3-month contract. Those three months have now extended to more than a decade! My role in the company has certainly changed in that time, moving from more corporate tasks that dealt with consolidation and reporting, to more business support roles.

 

As a Finance Strategist, what’s your biggest challenge?

To shake existing paradigms and make sure people don’t stick to a process simply because it produced success in the past. 

I try to get this across to the team, to challenge them to think beyond existing formulas.

We used to sell a lot of roller skates, for example. Pink ones with princesses on them were particularly popular. So when Frozen came along, the first instinct was to release another set of princess skates. My first move was to challenge product developers and licensees: should we really stick to the status quo? Girls are changing—do we know if they still want pink princess skates? How can we offer them something else? And related to that, do we have to continue selling 80% of the inventory to Walmart, or is there an opportunity to create your own sales channel?

 

Questioning the status quo—is that a skillset you get from being a futurist?

I think it comes more from being a strategist. There is an innate curiosity that makes challenging the status quo almost second nature. But, you’re right, training in and practicing foresight over the last 4 years has given a stronger voice to that innate curiosity.

Instead of relying on an instinct to think outside the box, I’m now able to identify subtle signs of change that indicate we should think differently. So, in a way, learning foresight has lent a measure of credibility and professionalism to the mindset I already had.

It’s difficult to convince people to change, but having the vocabulary and methodology certainly helps to get your point across, and gives more weight to your opinion.

 

What is it about the current environment that makes this type of divergent thinking more important than ever?

As early as five years ago, the world used to be a much more comfortable place for Disney and other entertainment conglomerates. The rules were set and well-defined. That’s far from the case now.

The way we distribute content, the way we distribute products—it’s all changed. The way kids see themselves has also changed. They expect more from products they consume. Moreover, we’ve gone past this consumerist boom and people are a lot more rational in their spending—they want more value from their purchases.

It would be easy for Disney to ignore these changes. After all, we’re a huge company with quality products, great talent, and loyal fans. But, if we allow ourselves to grow complacent, it would be difficult to course-correct in the future after all these small shifts amass into a monumental sea change. So it’s important to always be on our toes and make sure we understand the changes that are taking place in the industry.

 

How have the times changed for you as a strategy professional?

As strategists, we used to do a lot more looking back to look forward—extrapolating past growth or sales data, and replicating past strategies in the next plan.

For example, if we’d launch Avengers 3, we’d simply replicate the successful Avengers 2 strategy. Or, if the pink princess skates flew off the shelves, why wouldn’t the periwinkle skates have the same success?

That doesn’t work anymore. We need to look at the bigger picture.

Strategists now have unprecedented access to data—not just quantitative but also qualitative—and we have the tools to interpret those numbers. We can now look at the significance and value customers would assign to a new product, and base our strategy on this more holistic understanding of the product and the consumer.

Even the way we do 5-year plans has changed. The logic used to be, “ok, we’re growing 10% a year. We’ll keep growing 10%, plus or minus this new product line launching next year.” It used to consist only of quantitative factors, data we definitively knew.

Now, our 5-year plan looks quite different. It’s more qualitative, and we’re talking about things we need to start doing to prepare for future threats and opportunities.

So we now have a part of the strategic plan that detects emerging trends even if they don’t align with the way Disney currently does business. If we are to take advantage of this shift, and if we want to be a leader in this area, we need to put resources and brainpower behind developing “x” idea within the next 5 years. It may not immediately generate revenue, but it will pay off in a big way when the trend catches on.

 

How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?

Here’s an example:

Five years ago, I used to manage our production, sales, and distribution for Disney DVDs. DVDs were the largest contributor to the company’s bottom line.

Then there was a shift. It wasn’t a 1% to 3% annual decline as you would expect; there was a 30% drop in returns in just 1 year. It was a radical change and it felt like it happened overnight! When a significant shift like that happens, you have to adjust everything—retail and communication strategies, organizational structure—simply to keep up!

We learned a lot from that experience, and now we are able to apply those lessons to other parts of the business, and course-correct before the next 30% overnight drop happens.

Movies are a key example of this. The Good Dinosaur specifically comes to mind. Pixar had always been ranked at the top with several Oscar-winning movies. So we took all the lessons learned from those successful launches and applied them to The Good Dinosaur. And yet, it turned out to be the lowest grossing Pixar movie.

Everyone, from creators through to marketers, were left wondering what went wrong even though we followed the same processes that worked before. It boils down to how things are changing. In working on a big movie project for 3 or 4 years, it can be hard to identify or adjust for shifts in your audience’s values.               

So you could do everything right in launching a movie, and yet fall short because those external factors have created this uncertainty.

This multiplicity of platforms and what the consumer wants has increased complexity exponentially when it comes to creating, distributing, and marketing products.

It was so much easier to market a movie 5 years ago. Boiling it down to simple terms, you had to focus your ad-spend on TV and billboards. We knew that’s where our audience was—they were either driving, or watching TV.

Today, we need to engage them in a different way and position the product across different media. We have to think harder about how we get their attention, and how we get them to interact with the content instead of just scrolling past it.

The danger here is in taking a random approach to finding a solution. For example, if we decided we can’t just do TV, we have to add in Facebook and make a huge investment in Snapchat filters. As a finance professional, this is a nightmare because then your marketing budget explodes.

We have to run tests, analyze the results of various actions, and land on a combination that works. So from the strategy side, I have to be able to point out tactics that no longer work, and from the finance side, manage expenses that can balloon when we’re looking to shift strategy.

Disney is a lot leaner and more agile than other companies of a comparable size, but there are still a lot of processes and bureaucracy—it’s a necessity for a company this large to function. That reality just means it’s doubly important for us in strategy and foresight to identify sources of ambiguity far in advance, long before they become an issue.

In creating the 5- and 10-year plans, we present these ambiguous issues to the key decision makers, to make sure these potential game changing shifts don’t take us by surprise. I may not have the answers to these large ambiguous issues, but I can pose the question, and that is the first step toward being prepared.

 

When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?

Because Disney is such an entrenched brand, we tend to be more insulated from the VUCAness on a day-to-day basis. It’s easy to get complacent, but we are aware of it and that’s a good thing—it keeps things interesting!

Disney has done a good job of actively dealing with VUCA, incorporating the futurist mindset in our culture and encouraging each of us to look at things differently. This keeps me motivated, and it’s one thing that has kept me here so far past my 3-month contract.

For anyone in a different situation, I would say the key to dealing with the VUCA environment is preparedness. You have to be informed, read a lot, and be able to interpret what you’re reading, so that you can apply it to your job and follow a coherent strategy.

Preparedness and strategy go hand in hand, and you don’t want to stubbornly stick to the same strategy you’ve been using, thinking it’s always going to be the right one. You should have a solid strategy, but one you’re willing to improve upon as new information becomes available.

 

How do you react to VUCA?

Yonatan is able to embrace VUCA as a motivator to keep himself and his team at the top of their game. Complacency is not an option when you think like a futurist because it’s clear you always have to be adaptive, resilient, and transformative.

Do you have these attributes? Take our quiz to find out.