Friday, August 19, 2016

The basket of bad ideas scenario

So, over my resistance, my teenage son encouraged, no demanded, that we go to see Suicide Squad, the latest in a series of "superhero" movies intended to entertain us and drive profits for Hollywood.  Much as I expected, the movie was poorly plotted, poorly acted, a virtual pastiche of every hero movie ever made.  You could basically predict every scene, what key actors would say or do.  The movie made no sense, had no suspense and key characters (what was that crocodile thing anyway, or why does a guy with a boomerang qualify as a superhero) had little or nothing to do.

This is what you get when you scour the back catalogues of comic books, looking for ways to extend the franchise just a bit more.  This is what it looks like when you've run out of good ideas, out of plot lines and say to yourself - well, we have a number of not so hot ideas, let's throw them into a blender and see if they look better all mixed together.  A good movie, The Big Short, noted that this same philosophy, mixing up a number of bad loans into a new package, is what caused the sub-prime lending disaster.

So yes, I come to complain about Hollywood, which has lost all of its sense of creativity and wonder in search of ever larger CGI work and explosions, who can take good actors like Will Smith and have them sleepwalk through their roles.  This increasing reliance on comic book characters fighting ever increasingly improbable extraterrestrial monsters has reached and surpassed the tipping point - we've exhausted the concept.  But I'm sure there's more coming.

This concept of a basket of weak or bad ideas is not practiced just in Hollywood, however.  Far too frequently we see the same concepts practiced in corporations and in governments, where people and processes are too exhausted to identify new needs and generate new ideas.  Rather, they scour the back catalogues and overlooked ideas to come up with a melange of past due or weak ideas that can be baked into a "new" concept and offered to the world as a new solution or idea.  It's often far easier to simply package a bunch of outdated and barely relevant features, concepts and options and pass it off as a new solution, rather than do the interesting and valuable work of understanding trends, gathering needs and generating new insights and new ideas.

I'm concerned that some of the firms that were once good innovators are heading in this direction.  Two decades ago Steve Jobs cut the lion's share of Apple's product lines and bet the company on the iPod, iPhone and iPad, along with major upgrades to the Mac.  Today, we are getting tired, repackaged "smart watches" and hints about Apple cars and other devices.  Did Apple runs its innovation course when Jobs left the scene?  Do they have the energy and enthusiasm to create some really incredible new products and solutions?  Time will tell, but the iWatch and the lack of pronouncements this year fuel speculation that Apple has exhausted its good ideas.

Why do firms, like movie production houses, balk at creating new ideas and go back to the well so often, relying on poorly conceived ideas that were passed over in previous projects?  Why does a movie company feature a number of second and third tier "superheroes" in a movie whose plot appears to be stolen from Ghostbusters?  The answer lies in misunderstanding the audience, and in the fear of failure.  First, the audience for movies has rewarded Hollywood in the past for good superhero stories, like the reboot of Batman and the first Iron Man movies.  These felt fresh, new, well conceived.  They were main characters that were reasonably well known, with a history and backstory.  In both cases the producers went back to the origins, showing how Batman and Iron Man were created and why they exist.  As we move forward in time, the movie producers lost focus, cranking out more and more superhero stories which have increasingly little empathy, backstory or even coherent plot.  They are exhausting themselves because they are offering what it appears customers wanted.  But we customers have become more sophisticated, and the superheroes have become less interesting.

But the main driver for Hollywood and other industries is the fear of failure.  They'd rather fail by overextending a storyline or overusing the superhero theme than in creating a new concept or story.  If a movie like Suicide Squad fails, the producers can act surprised and claim that other superhero movies have worked in the past, so this one should have as well.  If a new idea fails, then you've got little foundation or past to stand on.  These last few years all we've gotten from Hollywood are reboots, reworking of old movies (a new Ghostbusters as an example) but little that's fresh, interesting or new, and certainly nothing that's innovative or tells a good story.

We typically counsel our customers that the first activity of any innovation project should be to clean up the zombie ideas.  These are ideas that no one has been willing to fund, and no one has been willing to kill. They simply hang around, taking up space, requiring further review, without ever moving forward.  In any innovation activity management will first require the team to review and consider the zombie ideas, since they exist and are often like other, more successful ideas from the past.  The mere existence of the zombie ideas gets in the way of doing something new, and makes doing new ideas seem more risky than it really is.  Further, packaging a bunch of really meager ideas into a new solution and calling it innovation is almost certainly a recipe for failure, and not a good failure where you might take a chance and learn something.

At this point the movie producers either need to go way back and find new characters that can become interesting main characters and build a backstory and create a real story line, investing in the development of characters or stories, or perhaps find a new genre to mine and exhaust.  Perhaps its time to go back to Westerns or sandals and togas for a while, because repackaging minor superheroes seems tired and outdated, it isn't working.  It won't work for Hollywood and it won't work in other industries either.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:39 AM


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