Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Red pill or Blue pill innovation

 As readers of this blog (and you know who you are) are bound to know by now, I am a movie fanatic.  I love good movies, average movies, older movies and so forth.  I like movies that I can quote, and also like movies that are based on my favorite books.  I am one of those people who is constantly astounded when I say "African or European swallow" and people give me a blank look.

As a movie buff, I fell in love with The Matrix, because it feels like something William Gibson wrote and it introduced an entirely new concept into the sci-fi realm - that we are living in a cyber reality and we need to be removed from the machine in order to see the real reality.  In the movie, in case (again astounded) that you haven't seen it, Lawrence Fishburne offers Neo, played by John Wick, I mean Keanu Reeves, a choice of two pills.  Very Alice in Wonderland-esque.

Take the blue pill and you will go back to your cyber reality, where computers are generating your experiences and your life and decisions are governed by a machine, where you are actually (and this is where the movie lost me just a bit) an energy source for the computers.

Take the red pill and you will be released from your cyber reality, and enter an entirely new existence that is more real, more personal and more dangerous than your cyber reality.  Oh, and the machines that you were once powering will seek you down to either reincorporate you in the machine or kill you.

Innovation choices are like the Matrix choices

When we talk about innovation in corporations, many of the choices individuals make and that innovation teams make are like the red pill / blue pill choice.  Take the blue pill and go back to your regular job, toiling away on the TPS reports (hint:  movie reference) and supporting the overall machine.  Take the red pill and enter a new reality where disruptive innovation and business model change is possible, but corporate culture, decision making, existing infrastructure, budgeting processes and risk all threaten your project.

You may think that this is a good thought analogy, but that life in a corporation is not so clear cut.  That it is never a binary choice to go back to the safe day to day job and avoid innovation, or to risk it all to do really interesting, game changing innovation.  But in some ways the choices are starker on innovation teams than what Neo was faced with.  At least when Neo took the blue pill, he would forget he was ever tempted to leave his sedentary, safe existence for one with a hint of danger.

All superhero movies involve side kicks

Taking the red pill introduced Neo to others who had also made the risky choice.  They, like a lot of innovation team members, were a rag tag group of misfits who had made the choice to leave the borg and try to create something new.  What Neo did not know, and what happens in many innovation teams, is that several of his counterparts longed to go back into the borg, to take their safe and comfortable place back in the hum drum day to day, and would sacrifice Neo and Morpheus to the computer systems in order to do so.

Most innovation teams are made up of one of two types of people:  those who were assigned to the team, who had no choice (and these are often exceptionally strong people who did not want the assignment) and those who choose the red pill.  The people who choose the red pill are often corporate misfits, who are constantly questioning why the company does things a certain way, or who are always looking for a better way to do things.  

Regardless of how you or Neo get on the team, you've made a choice, and the people around you have either been assigned or made the same choice.  Now, what you have to do is determine if your team has the skills it needs in order to succeed, the sponsorship and investment it needs, and the ability to stick to the work, and ignore the desire to go back to the hum drum.

In The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano's character plays the villain, the one who sells out the team in order to go back to the hum drum existence.  Others, like Trinity, play the characters who choose the red pill and never looked back.

Work with the folks who choose the blue pill

No matter where they come from, no matter what their reputation or skill set, no matter who they are, if you are doing innovation work, find the people who chose the red pill.  Those people who desire change, who want to do new things, who are dissatisfied with the status quo.

This is almost a "burn the boats on the beach" kind of commitment.  Too much looking back at the status quo can lead to a realization that innovation is difficult, unusual, risky, often underfunded.  And that can lead to the decision that the old life, no matter how hum drum, was at least comfortable.  Or, it can lead to a narrowing of the scope or outcome, so that the individual can be over and done with the project as quickly as possible.  You'll want to identify these people as quickly as possible, because they will constantly shrink the scope of the project until what you deliver is undifferentiated from existing products.

So, the choice when you are presented with it is relatively easy.  If you want an easy life, take the blue pill and keep plugging away at the day job, comfortable if slightly bored.  If you want change, risk and an opportunity to create something new, take the red pill.  Just understand what it entails.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:18 AM


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