There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to blockbuster movies with less than stellar box office performances. The well-publicized failure of Disney’s John Carter is now accompanied by the similarly disappointing performance of Universal’s Battleship. Both productions harken back to one of the most spectacular studio flops of the 1990s, that of Universal’s Waterworld.
I recently read an excerpt from an interview with Peter Berg, the Director of Battleship, that contained some interesting observations from an unexpected source, the actor Kevin Costner of Waterworld fame. What was most surprising about the interview is that, with a little creativity, the advice that Kevin Costner gave Peter Berg about Battleship can provide insight for practitioners of innovation.
Berg’s production plan for Battleship called for filming key scenes on a series of barges and working US Navy ships a mile off the shore of Hawaii, part of a very expensive production in which total costs that would reach $200 million. While preparing to shoot Battleship, Berg received a call from Kevin Costner. Costner knew that Berg was planning to do extensive filming in challenging conditions of open water, and the famous actor spent three hours with Berg explaining the difficulties experienced while filming Waterworld. Costner’s advice was wide ranging, and Berg recalls the most salient points, accompanied by my suggested innovation lessons, in the following section:
When you’re making a film, rarely does someone get hurt doing a stunt. Everyone’s so vigilant during a stunt. You’ve got the ambulance here, we practice, everyone’s padded, everyone’s fine. It’s the stupid stuff.
We often devote most of our attention to what I would call the early phases of the innovation process, such as the ideation phase. When we are in a workshop surrounded by other creative individuals exploring new ideas or solving problems, we are typically at full attention. However, the more difficult portion of the innovation process often occurs after the new ideas are generated and must be shepherded through a challenging process to become new products or services or to transform an organization. Just as a film crew is more intense and focused during a stunt, then sometimes suffers from an accident during seemingly less dangerous episodes, so, too, must the innovation practitioner maintain vigilance throughout the process of making a great idea into something real, even during the less intense parts of the process.
Look[...] crew members in the eye [...to make] sure they’re okay.
This is a challenge faced not just by an innovation practitioner but by any leader in a business or organization. Communication is critical to success, but there is a big difference between hearing what a team member says and understanding what a team member means. Berg’s crew was operating in a harsh environment, with a great deal of noise, moving platforms, and lots of variables to consider. A quick acknowledgement that a team member is ready to proceed to the next action is very different from firm confirmation that the same team member is truly prepared. This strikes me as a danger in the latter stages of an ideation exercise, where participants may be reaching the point where they want to move on but aren’t providing their most honest and thorough input into the process, which could help surface an issue that could trip up the innovation effort later in the process. Eye-to-eye communication is the key to making sure that all the necessary information is captured upfront before resources are expended on continuing the innovation process.
Really understand[...] what the fluctuations in the weather can be.
Weather for the filmmaker operating in open water is like the marketplace intruding on a linear process of driving an innovation forward. As time passes from the moment a team identifies a new idea to the time it works through an innovation process to become a new product or service, the marketplace does not remain static during that time. An innovation team needs to be constantly aware of these marketplace fluctuations so they can modify their innovation as needed so it continues to meet consumer wants and needs.
[Think about what] to do if sharks show up [when] you’re filming, ’cause they do.
I imagine the reader quickly made the same connection I did between the actual sharks that Berg saw in the waters off Hawaii and the often-maligned legal profession. In any innovation process, lawyers can intrude either from the standpoint of a corporate legal department slowing down an innovation team for various reasons, or intellectual property issues become prevalent in a work effort. A shark could also be a competing internal or external team moving into the space that the innovation team was hoping to leverage to drive their idea forward. Innovation teams typically do not spend a lot of time thinking of sharks, but perhaps such scenario planning could be beneficial.
Redundancy, identifying anything that could break, and then making sure you had three backups. Not one, but three.
In the field of IT delivery, redundancy is so critical to everything we do that it becomes second nature. In Berg’s case, Costner’s advice was to have massive redundancy (one primary with three spares) for every critical component. We rarely think of redundancy in innovation and are typically single-threaded in our process of taking a good idea through our pipeline into development, but it might be worth considering adding more redundancy into our processes, especially considering the impact of the failure of a critical component at a critical juncture in the development of an innovation.
[Pay...] attention to all the things that weren’t obvious […] making sure that crew members were alert, that they weren’t getting dehydrated and falling off these big barges we were filming on. Well, people fell off the barges, so we were making sure there were rescue divers in the water all the time, so that nobody got hurt. And nobody got hurt.
This concept is a corollary to the observation above about looking a crew member in the eye to make sure he or she is okay. The corollary is that when operating in the open water, inevitably someone will fall in so rescue divers should always be deployed and ready to assist. Likewise for the innovation practitioner, at some point in the process, an innovation will fall off the rails and need to be rescued, so the innovation leader should think about those scenarios in advance and make contingency plans to handle them as efficiently as possible.
We had five hundred people on a barge a mile out, and, you know, cranes and boats with cameras. It was a circus out there and film crews tend to work their [tails] off and they go into these trances and they don’t think, “Oh I’m a mile out, on a boat, and if I step here, I’m in the water.”
The observation here is that when we are in the midst of driving an idea through the innovation process, we sometimes can fall into the equivalent of a trance with our intensive focus on parenting our idea. We put long hours into the effort and concentrate on coordinating all the various moving parts to do everything we can to make our idea succeed. What we tend to forget, despite frequent reminders from scholars of innovation around us, is the likelihood that we will fail. As innovators we are figuratively a mile out, on a boat, and if we make a misstep we often find ourselves in the water.
In the end, Costner’s advice to Berg allowed the latter to finish his film without any of the major water debacles that Costner experienced in making Waterworld and, similarly, that James Cameron experienced while filming Titanic. However, even a relatively flawless execution of the process of making a film does not ensure it will be a success when it is put in front of a live audience. Box office results suggest that the movie Battleship will not provide the revenue that Universal had hoped to cover its $200 million price tag. This is perhaps the most important innovation lesson to be learned from Waterworld and Battleship. In the case of the former, a lack of planning and execution in the production process resulted in a failure in the marketplace, while in the case of the latter, well thought-out execution in production still resulted in a lack of marketplace success. In the end, the final arbiter of the value of the output of our innovation processes in the marketplace, and it can deliver harsh verdicts on our innovations. Moreover, if one is about to take on an incredibly daunting challenge, such as spending $200 million to shoot a movie a mile out at sea, then find a Kevin Costner who has done it before. Better yet, have Kevin Costner find you.
image credit: collider & oregonlive
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.