Category Archives: Strategy

A Lesson on Innovation from Steven Colbert

Reading an old Rolling Stone interview with Stephen Colbert, I was struck by this quote:

It’s interesting how by joking about the Colbert Nation, you made it exist.
Yeah, they want in on the fun. That was something we didn’t expect, because we joked about the Colbert Nation and then we said, “Oh shit, it’s real.” That’s an interesting thing, and that’s another improvisational aspect — that discovery is better than invention. We invented the Colbert Nation, but then we discovered it was real. We didn’t make it happen, they self-organized it. I love that relationship. We can’t always have it, and you can’t force that. You just have to acknowledge it. We’re always planting seeds with the show, and the challenge is, will we notice when a flower blooms, and then pick that flower?

We often think that to innovate, we have to come up with something new – something that’s never been tried, that will come out of left field and disrupt the status quo.  But the best innovations aren’t inventions at all, they’re discovery, reproduction, and nurturing of something little-known, but already proven successful.  The greatest ‘innovators’ on the tech scene weren’t to market with their products: Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone manufacturer, and Facebook wasn’t the first social network.  But each took a unique insight, market lesson, or positioning to bring out a product that’s now integrated into our lives.

Professional Services firms can be especially apt to fall into the innovation as invention trap.  I’ve worked with a number of firms who saw ‘new product development’ as creating marketing materials that they could pitch to new clients.  Most of the time, these brochures collect dust for a few months before recycling, and the PowerPoint pitch decks get lost on a Sharepoint site somewhere.

But if you can’t create a new product, how are professional services firms supposed to innovate?  Whenever I’ve seen successful innovation, it’s been through discovery.  First, the firms create an environment where professionals feel free to innovate and try new things, especially on their most trusted client relationships (planting seeds, in Colbert’s analogy).  This can be risky, because many firms are nervous to experiment and fail on their largest relationships, but these are also the clients who are most likely to pay for them to try.  Second, they’re great at paying attention, so they notice when a seed starts to bloom.  They constantly gather feedback from clients, write up case studies, and share knowledge within the firm.  Finally, they have the resources to pluck the most promising flowers,  which can look different depending on the innovation.  Sometimes, it means turning a promising team leader into a practice head, who can then grow other similar accounts, and other teams it means committing central resources to packaging and disseminating  the best practices that were learned on a project.

None of these steps are rocket science, but like growing flowers, they take time and patience, and other than careful tending, there’s very little you can do to accelerate the process.  That can be frustrating to impatient leaders, who want to feel like something is being done, but it’s also the only way to see the phenomenal success you can find from discovering innovation where you didn’t expect it.  Just look at Colbert’s show, which has earned seven Emmy nominations, spawned a SuperPAC, and has Space Treadmill named after him.

Frogs and Pigs Can Talk, Penguins and Chickens Can’t

From a NYTimes piece on Bret McKenzie’s work writing songs for the new Muppet Movie:

It’s a sacred endeavor because, to a certain generation, of which McKen­zie is part (he is 35), the Muppets are a found­ational part of childhood; writing a song for Kermit is a bit like writing a song for a blankie that millions of children shared. And it’s daunting because, well, these are the Muppets, and the Muppets have rules. And as of 2004, the Muppets, as a property, are owned by Disney. And Disney has rules.

For example: At one point, McKenzie wrote a lyrical joke for Kermit, in which he would sing, “I remember when I was just a little piece of felt.” That didn’t fly. “I was told: ‘You’re not allowed to do that. The Muppets have always existed. You can’t break down their world.’ ” Another rule: Frogs and bears and pigs can talk, but penguins and chickens can’t. They can cluck or squawk musically, but they can’t say words. “So I was like, ‘Can we get the penguins to sing?’ And they’d say: ‘No. Penguins don’t sing.’ ”

It reminded me of an old Wired Magazine article about the Star Wars canon.  When I was in grad school, we reviewed a case study that looked at the way content owners like Disney or Time Warner managed their characters like consumer packaged goods companies managed their brands – creating rules for where they can appear, what their behaviors are like, what the uniforms or clothes look like, and which cross-promotions are appropriate, and which verboten, similar to the way corporate marketing departments will regulate how their logos can appear, the fonts you can use, and the proper spellings of their products.

Edward Luttwak on Strategy and Organizational Behavior

From this Tablet Interview, Edward Luttwak on Strategy:

[Strategic thinking is] a gift like mathematics. The paradoxical logic of strategy contradicts the logic of everyday life, it goes against all normal definitions of intelligence we have. It only makes sense if you understand the dialectic

And on styles of leadership and bureaucracy:

But when such a person is the head of a department, the whole department is actually paralyzed and they are all reduced to serfs and valets. Therefore, what gets applied to a problem is only the wisdom of the aforementioned wily head of the department. All the other talent is wasted, all the other knowledge is wasted.

Now you have a choice: You can have a non-wily head of a department and the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole department, or else you can have a wily head and zero functioning