In the early 1990s, a group of screenwriters proposed something that had never been done at Disney: They wanted to make an animated movie based on an original concept. Departing from a half century of hits based on time-honored tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White, they set out to write a story from scratch. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio chief at the time, was skeptical, telling colleagues it was an experiment. “No one had any confidence in it,” the project’s director, Rob Minkoff recalls. “It was seen as the B movie at Disney.”
The script eventually became The Lion King, which was the highest-grossing film of 1994, winning two Oscars and a Golden Globe. Katzenberg had said he would get down on his knees in appreciation if it brought in $50 million. By 2014, it had earned over $1 billion. Like many original ideas, the movie almost never got off the ground. It was conceived as “Bambi in Africa,” with lions as the protagonists instead of deer. But after the first script failed, five of the writers gathered to rethink it. They sat together for two days, batting around ideas and weaving an epic tale about the succession of kings, and then pitched the story to a group of Disney executives. The first to respond was CEO Michael Eisner, who wasn’t getting it. Grasping for a hook, he asked, “Could you make this into King Lear?”
Coincidentally, Minkoff had reread that play a few weeks earlier, and he explained why the concept didn’t fit. Then, from the back of the room, a producer named Maureen Donley raised another Shakespearean suggestion: “No, this is Hamlet.”
Suddenly, everyone got it. “There was a collective sigh of recognition,” Minkoff says. “Of course it was Hamlet—the uncle kills the father, and the son has to avenge his father’s death. So then we decided it was going to be Hamlet with lions.” In that pivotal moment, the film got the green light.
To understand what saved the movie from the cutting-room floor, I turned to Justin Berg, a creativity expert at Stanford. The writers had to begin with lions, Berg explains. Had they started with Hamlet, they would have ended up with an animated knockoff of Shakespeare. Beginning with a novel template was the key to originality, but it also posed a challenge.
In an experiment, Berg asked people to design a new product to help college students succeed in job interviews. He instructed them to start with the familiar concept of a three-ring binder, and then come up with something novel. Bookstore managers and customers rated the resulting ideas as utterly conventional. According to Berg, the starting point in generating ideas is like the first brushstroke that a painter lays down on a canvas: It shapes the path for the rest of the painting, constraining the imagination. Beginning with a three-ring binder led Berg’s participants down the path of proposing obvious products like a folder with pockets for résumés and business cards—hardly a game-changing idea. To come up with something original, they needed to begin from a more unfamiliar place.
Instead of the three-ring binder, Berg gave some participants a more novel starting point: an in-line skate for roller blading. No longer captives of the conventional, they generated ideas that scored 37 percent higher in originality. One participant observed that during job interviews, it’s often difficult to know how much time has passed, and you don’t want to appear rude by looking at your watch, breaking eye contact with the interviewer. The proposed solution was to build a watch that tracks time by touch, with physical elements, such as the wheels on roller skates, that change shape or texture as time passes.
Although a novel starting point does help foster originality, it doesn’t necessarily make them palatable and practical to audiences. While the rollerblade led to a creative idea for subtly tracking time, squeezing one’s watch is an odd behavior. To solve this problem, Berg gave people the novel starting point of the in-line skate, but added a twist: After they developed their ideas, he showed them a picture of products that people typically use in job interviews, then asked them to spend a few additional minutes refining their concepts. On average, a novel starting point followed by this jolt of familiarity led to ideas that were judged as 14 percent more practical, without sacrificing any originality. For the person who wanted a polite method of timekeeping, this made all the difference. Instead of designing a watch that tells time by touch, after taking a look at the kinds of products that were familiar in job interviews, the same inventor designed a pen that tells time by touch.
The most promising ideas begin from novelty and then add familiarity. As Berg points out, if you started the experiment with a pen rather than an in-line skate, you’d probably end up with something a lot like a conventional pen. But by starting with something unexpected in the context of job interviews, like an in-line skate, and then incorporating the familiarity of a pen, it’s easier to develop an idea that is both novel and useful.
In the case of The Lion King, that’s what happened when Maureen Donley suggested that the script could be like Hamlet. The dose of familiarity helped the executives connect the novel savannah script to a classic tale. “It gives a large group of people a single point of reference,” Minkoff explains. “With absolute originality, you can lose people. Executives have to sell it, so they’re looking for those handles. It gives them something to hang on to.” The Lion King team went on to take a cue from Hamlet. Realizing that they needed a “To be or not to be” moment, they added a scene in which the baboon, Rafiki, delivers a lesson to Simba about the importance of remembering who he is.
To generate creative ideas, it’s important to start from an unusual place. But to explain those ideas, they have to be connected to something familiar. That’s why so many startups are introducing themselves as the “Uber for X.”
This article has been adapted from Adam Grant’s book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.