A few weeks ago, I wrote a post using quotes from “Moneyball” (the movie, not the book) to describe the experience of trying to innovate within a corporate setting.
It was great fun to write, I received tons of feedback, and had many fascinating conversations (plus a fact check on the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino), so I started searching for other movies that inadvertently but accurately describe the journey of corporate innovators.
The Princess Bride
If you have not seen The Princess Bride, stop reading and immediately go watch it. Seriously, there is nothing more important for you to do right now than to crawl out from the cultural rock you’ve been under since 1987 and watch this movie.
If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly watched the movie and know that it is packed with life lessons and quotable quotes. It also captures the reality of innovation within the walls of large companies
“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya
A company’s focus on Innovation usually begins the moment a senior executive, usually the CEO, declares it to be a key strategic priority and promises Wall Street analysts that significant investments will be made.
It then trickles down to business units and functions, with each subsequent layer told to “be more innovative” and “come up with more innovation.”
Then, one day, the responsibility for innovation lands in someone’s lap and stays there. To be honest, it’s usually an exciting day for the person because they’ve been asking questions, suggesting ideas, and pushing for innovation for a long time, and now the powers that be have permitted them to do something about it. They may even have been given a title and budget specific for innovation.
But “innovation” was never defined.
The CEO may think it is an entirely new business, something flashy and new that rivals anything coming out of Silicon Valley.
The Business Unit and Functional Heads may think it’s a new product or technology, something just different enough from the current business to be newsworthy but not so different that it changes how things are done.
And the new Innovation owner thinks it’s new ideas, lots of brainstorming sessions, and networking with entrepreneurs and startups.
Without alignment as to what “innovation” means and what it needs to deliver, the stage is set for misalignment, frustration, and ultimately failure. Al because that word, “Innovation,” does not mean what you think it means.
“We’ll never survive.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.” – Westley
Let’s imagine for a moment that a common definition and set of expectations for innovation is established and everyone up and down the corporate hierarchy is in agreement (this actually does happen, but it takes effort).
The innovation owner has a clear mandate and is hard at work building an innovation pipeline – they’re having lots of qualitative interviews to build customer empathy, they’re facilitating brainstorming sessions to get ideas, they’re building prototypes to get customer feedback. Most importantly, they’re sharing their work with anyone who will listen, asking for feedback, and building supporters and champions.
And then, the chorus begins.
“This will never work”
“You’ll never get approval for that”
“If we do that, we’ll lose customers”
“If you do that, you’ll be fired.”
In these moments, the dark seeds of doubt are planted. The innovation owner must dig deep, reminding themselves that people are only saying those things because it hasn’t worked yet, no one got approval yet, customers haven’t yet weighed in, and you haven’t tried to do that yet.
After all, just because something has never been done, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
“Thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you’re at it, why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
Let’s be honest, most corporate innovation efforts don’t result in the world-changing, life-affirming successes we hop for. Innovators are, by nature and necessity, an optimistic bunch so when things don’t work out as we hope, it hurts. It hurts as much as a paper cut with lemon juice poured on it.
But there is one truth that cuts across all attempts at corporate innovation, no matter whether the journey ends with wild success in the form of massive business growth, happy success in the form of new products and revenue streams, satisfying success in the form of improvements and greater efficiencies, or bitter disappointment because nothing changes and everyone goes on to old or new jobs.
“I supposed you think you’re brave, don’t you?” – Vizzini
“Only compared to some.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride
Those who took on the work and responsibility of innovation are brave.
Not only compared to some but compared to most.
It takes guts to try something new. To ask questions. To challenge the status quo. To continue seeking a yes amongst a thousand no’s. To put your reputation, your bonus, and maybe even your job on the line.
And that’s what corporate innovators need to remember – that whatever happens, they were brave. They worked hard, they battled the odds, they did make change happen. Even if it was only how they see and understand the world. Even if it only to get smarter and stronger and prepare for the next time they are called upon to drive change.
Because in that moment, innovators must be ready to say “As you wish.”
“You are a salmon.”
This was not the career advice I hoped for.
After months of tests, quizzes, career counseling sessions, and peer support groups, I was sitting in the expansive wood-paneled office of Harvard Business School’s Head of Career Services, eagerly anticipating learning what my ideal career would be. I did not expect to be told that I was a fish.
“You are only happy when you are rebelling against something. You are a salmon. Whatever you choose to do, you must swim upstream.”
This did not sound like a recipe for the peaceful, easy, frictionless career that I envisioned. This sounded like a career of frustration, struggle, and just generally being annoyed most of the time.
It was 100% accurate.
Innovators are salmon
Quick tutorial on salmon – they hatch in freshwater, swim out to the ocean and live in the saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn and die (assuming the don’t get caught by a bear or fisherman first).
Quick tutorial on innovators – they are born (like everyone else) with creativity and a sense of unlimited possibility, they go out into the world and face the sting of reality before returning to their natural creative state to ask questions, challenge the status quo, drive growth, and (like everyone else) die.
Swimming upstream is exhausting for fish and for people. That’s why most don’t do it. That’s why most fish and people make the sensible choice to go with the flow, work within the system, and find better ways to do the same things.
But innovators, like salmon, instinctively know that to create, they must follow a different and much harder path. Instead of going with the flow, they must question the status quo. Instead of finding a better way to do the same things, they question whether those things even need to be done and create new ways to do new things.
Companies recognize that they need innovators. They need people who think differently and aren’t afraid to take smart risks because these are the people that will create new revenue streams and drive companies’ long-term growth. But, like the river, the company can’t change how it operates.
Companies need salmon ladders
Quick tutorial on salmon ladders – they are structures on or around natural barriers like waterfalls and dams, that have a high enough water velocity to attract the fish but not so much as to exhaust them, and often have very low steps that the salmon can leap up to get to their destination
Quick tutorial on innovation processes – they are structures separate from companies’ existing processes (and the barriers that often slow progress), that allow enough freedom for creativity and experimentation but not so much as to put the company at serious risk, and often have steps or stages that innovators and their projects must leap up in order to launch a scalable business.
Salmon ladders help salmon progress more rapidly and efficiently, decreasing the odds that they die from exhaustion before reaching their destination. Innovation processes help innovators progress ideas more rapidly and efficiently through an organization, decreasing the odds that they die (or quit, or get fired) before reaching their destination.
How to build a salmon ladder for innovators
Google “innovation process” and you will get 1.8 BILLION results in 0.59 seconds. That’s because there is no one magic innovation process that works for everyone.
But as varied as effective innovation processes are, they share common characteristics.
- People over process. If you announce the implementation of a new process, send out a user manual, and then walk away, the process will fail. If you involve people in designing and pressure testing the process, support them in the first 6-12 months of use, and they experience the value of the process for themselves, the process will succeed.
- Goals are good. Constraints are better. Innovation is an investment, and the company expects a return on that investment. Be clear about those expectations from the start. Innovation is not “anything goes!” Be clear about what the company is and is not willing to support before your start.
- Guidance, not direction. Innovation is filled with known unknowns and unknown unknowns and, for that reason, the path to launch isn’t a straight line. But it also can’t be an infinite loop. Innovation processes should set guardrails for the work to be done but shouldn’t be overly prescriptive.
- Insights, not information. Innovation processes should enable learning and encourage its sharing. Building in time for teams to reflect on their experience and write down their insights is critical for continued growth. Weighing the team down with detailed analyses, complicated templates, and constant update presentations doesn’t enable and encourage learning, it slows it down.
- Celebrate milestones, not just launches. More innovation projects will be stopped than will be launched. The stopped projects aren’t failures, they’re lessons learned and steppingstones to the next big launch. Celebrating the milestones that projects achieve, even the milestone of being stopped, will keep innovators energized and swimming upstream far longer than celebrating only the launches.
Innovators do the hard work of swimming upstream.
Help them out by building a process to guide and propel them.
After all, as one of my favorite poems points out,
If you move with the crowd, you’ll get no further than the crowd
Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.
So if you believe in something that’s good, honest, and bright – stand up for it.
Maybe your peers will get smart and drift your way
Last week, pitchers and catchers reported to MLB Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona. For baseball fans, this is the first sign of Spring, an occasion that heralds months of warmth and sunshine, ballparks filled (hopefully) with cheering fans, dinners of beers and brats, and the undying belief that this year will be the year.
Of course, there’s still a lot of dark, dreary cold between now and Opening Day. Perfect weather for watching baseball movies – Bull Durham, Major League, The Natural, Field of Dreams, and, of course, Moneyball.
Moneyball is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis and chronicles the 2002 Oakland Athletics season. The ’02 Oakland A’s, led by General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), forever changed baseball by adopting an approach that valued rigorous statistical analysis over the collective wisdom of baseball insiders (coaches, scouts, front office personnel) when building a team. This approach, termed “Moneyball,” enabled the A’s to reach the postseason with a team that cost only $44M in salary, compared to the NY Yankees that spent $125M to achieve the same outcome.
While the whole movie (and book) is a testament to the courage and perseverance required to challenge and change the status quo, time and again I come back to three lines that perfectly sum up the journey of every successful intrapreneur I’ve ever met.
“I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall…he always gets bloody…always always gets bloody. This is threatening not just a way of doing business… but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. Really what it’s threatening is their livelihood, their jobs. It’s threatening the way they do things… and every time that happens, whether it’s the government, a way of doing business, whatever, the people who are holding the reins – they have their hands on the switch – they go batshit crazy.”John Henry, Owner of the Boston Red Sox
The 2002 season is over, and the A’s were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. John Henry, an owner of the Boston Red Sox, has invited Bill Beane to Boston to offer him the Red Sox GM job.
This is what you sign up for when you decide to be an Intrapreneur. The more you challenge the status quo, the more you question how business is done, the more you ask Why and demand an answer, the closer you get to “tak(ing) it in the teeth.”
This is why courage, perseverance, and an unshakeable belief that things can and should be better are absolutely essential for intrapreneurs. Your job is to run at the wall over and over until you get through it.
People will follow. The Red Sox did. They won the World Series in 2004, breaking an 84-year-old curse.
“It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process”Bill Beane
Billy has to convince the ballplayers to forget all the habits that made them great and embrace the philosophy of Moneyball. To stop stealing bases, turning double plays on bunts, and swinging for the fences and to start taking walks, throwing to first for the easy out, and prioritize getting on base over hitting a home run.
The players are confused and frustrated. Suddenly, everything that they once did right is wrong and what was not valued is deeply prized.
Innovation is something new that creates value. Something new doesn’t just require change, it requires people to stop doing things that work and start doing things that seem strange or even wrong.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a switch to be flipped. It’s a process to be learned. It takes time, practice, reminders, and patience.
“When you get an answer you’re looking for, hang up.”Billy Beane
In this scene, Billy has offered one of his players to multiple teams, searching for the best deal. When the phone rings with a deal he likes, he and the other General Manager (GM) agree to it, Billy hangs up. Even though the other GM was in the middle of a sentence. When Peter Brand, the Assistant GM played by Jonah Hill, points out that Billy had just hung up on the other GM, Billy responds with this nugget of wisdom.
It’s advice intrapreneurs should take very much to heart. I often see Innovation teams walk into management presentations with long presentations, full of data and projections, anxious to share their progress, and hoping for continued funding and support. When the meeting starts, a senior exec will say something like, “We’re excited by the progress we’re hearing about and what it will take to continue.”
That’s the cue to “hang up.”
Instead of starting the presentation from the beginning, start with “what it will take to continue.” You got the answer you’re looking for – they’re excited about the progress you’ve made – don’t spend time giving them the info they already have or, worse, could raise questions and dim their enthusiasm. Hang up on the conversation you want to have and have the conversation they want to have.
Moneyball was an innovation that fundamentally changed one of the most tradition-bound businesses in sports. To be successful, it required someone willing to take it in the teeth, to coach people through a process, and to hang up when they got the answer they wanted. It wasn’t easy but real change rarely is.
The same is true in corporations. They need their own Bill Beanes.
Are you willing to step up to the plate?