Producing a Blockbuster
by Steve Coats

Besides a long overdue family vacation, the arrival of summer signals something else of great anticipation for many people - the blockbuster movies arriving at the theaters. Somehow every year, a couple of these films rise up and actually deliver on all the hoopla and buzz surrounding them.

Although the plots or story lines are incredibly different, real blockbusters do share some things in common? For starters, they don't just please or satisfy, they frequently leave the audience breathless! They make or solidify careers of the people involved. And of course, they make a bundle of money at the box office (as well as generate enormous sales of related merchandise and music products.)

But, producing a blockbuster is not for the faint of heart. Although a few might seem like a slam-dunk from the beginning, most require an enormous investment of money and time, involve something never done before - be it dazzling technology, location, or staging - and are filled with contentious re-writes, edits, artistic clashes and so forth. And after months and months of perpetual problems, draining work schedules and unforgiving deadlines, the movie must light up the box office within 72 hours in order to be a winner.

According to what you read, almost every movie studio needs a blockbuster every so often to survive in the long run. And so does every other kind of business enterprise. Although they usually have more than 3 days to determine success, the trials of creating a blockbuster in any business are quite similar to those in the movie industry.

I have recently heard a number of executives comment about the need for some real breakthroughs in their businesses. Perhaps this need is now more paramount, given the struggles companies are facing in light of the current economic downturn. But here is the paradox. For all their banter about how desperately they want blockbusters, much of the effort in their organizations remains directed on incremental, smaller scale improvements.

Is that the case in your organization? Why do you suppose this paradox occurs?

What Stalls Blockbuster Efforts

Over time, we have uncovered several reasons for this troubling inconsistency, including:

  • Most of the big breakthroughs involve a leap of faith to some degree. Sometimes there is just not enough quantifiable research to build an airtight business case. The assumptions being considered are very reasonable, but there is always the haunting question of, "what if we are wrong?" There can be both a real financial cost and a reputation cost (personal and organizational) when the idea does not live up to expectations. Blockbusters are risky business.

  • Blockbusters usually take a lot of time and effort to design, debug and implement. And they frequently have impact across several organizational divisions. As they gain momentum, more and more people want to ensure their own special wants and needs are included. Does that ever make things interesting, especially when those needs are based on ego or position power.

  • In too many cases, people are actually punished when they propose a bold idea. If the idea is seen as too unconventional or different, the person associated with it may be labeled as a crackpot who does not understand how the company really makes money. Granted, being labeled like this is usually not the best thing for one's career, but there is another punishment that might even be worse. The person with the courage to put forth a bold new initiative is told, "Great idea, go make it happen. But make sure you still get your regular job done." Since people are virtually overwhelmed by the staggering targets of their regular jobs, why would they possibly want to take on more - especially when the additional work is so risky and often loaded with political landmines?

  • The lion's share of emphasis is on immediate business results. CEO's hear the migraine inducing, constant pounding of quarterly earnings expectations, and the importance of that message gets communicated very clearly throughout the organization. More often than not, the compensation and rewards people receive are almost entirely tied to how well they deliver on the numbers right now. In general, people are neither equipped to think about nor given any real incentive to apply much effort on future big-ticket ideas.

Given all these risks and difficulties, it is easy to understand the discrepancy between talk and action. In fact, most organizations do not lack great ideas, they suffer from the lack of people stepping up as leaders to combat these very real factors working against them. So, if you are really serious about generating blockbuster ideas on a continuing basis, you are going to have to take on that challenge. You will have to find ways to get more and more people inspired to think about, and willing to commit themselves to the tremendous effort needed to bring those exhilarating opportunities to life. You will have to provide some courageous leadership.

Keep in mind that leaders are responsible for delivering today's results AND creating the opportunities that ensure fulfillment of tomorrow's expectations. That is a very tall order, since meeting today's numbers is more than a full time job for most. There are some senior executives who would love to be able to sacrifice earnings for a quarter or two in order to invest in future profits for the long haul. Unfortunately that is just not acceptable these days. Success as a leader is based on uninterrupted growth - today and tomorrow, as unrealistic as that may sometimes seem.

Creating the Right Environment

How can you begin to break through the dilemma that seems to pit the focus on incremental improvements for today's results against the blockbusters needed for tomorrow? How can you change an environment that tends to foster smaller thinking to one that promotes the development of grand thoughts, and execution on them? Following are some of the things that, as a leader, you can do to make some real and sustainable progress.

First, you must examine your own beliefs about the importance of breakthrough ideas. Your company may have a proven track record of constant incremental improvement, and you might believe that strategy will continue to serve you long into the future. You may be right. But also consider that while you are continuing to constantly improve the quality and production efficiency of your phonograph, a competitor is inventing the CD player.

Because of the risk associated with blockbusters, you may have a tendency to stay safe with predominately cost cutting ideas or rather tentative, incremental ventures into new arenas. After all, there is an expression, "pioneers get the arrows and settlers get the land," which can make you think twice about the perils of trying something that has never been tried before. But always remember, you cannot grow your company to meet the expectations of tomorrow if your ways of thinking stay the size of yesterday.

Broaden you mind about unconventional ways to dramatically grow your business. You might be holding back the next "Harry Potter" because it doesn't mesh with your view of the world. You will need to engage in the leadership practice of possibility thinking, or you might pull the plug too quickly, simply because "the company has never done anything like this before."

Keep in mind that a blockbuster can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It can be a revolutionary new product or a process technology breakthrough. It can be a new way of servicing current customers, or a better method of connecting with your suppliers. It can even be a new way of thinking about things.

But do not believe that a blockbuster must be unusually complicated or high tech to succeed. Notebook computers and wonder drugs might fit that description, but how about chopped lettuce in a bag, which is reported to be about a billion and a half dollar industry these days. And what would the sales of dental floss be, without the simple plastic container that allows you to cut it at just the right length?

Examine who you think is most responsible for or capable of creating blockbusters. Some companies have very formal R&D organizations, staffed with very talented and specialized people, who have been hired specifically to produce product or service breakthroughs. Others might have evolved a culture of corporate-wide innovation with ambitious targets like 50% of revenue coming from products less than 4 years old. In these organizations ideas of all kinds are the lifeblood of the business, and an individual in almost any position might be viewed as potential sources for a blockbuster.

Do you basically believe blockbusters can only come from senior management, R&D people, or other technical specialists? Or do you view every person in your company, regardless of position or title, as a key contributor to your future? Think about it. To what extent do you view your own people as having the "idea potential," to dramatically change your own business or an entire industry for that matter?

You must create a process for bold ideas to get created and surfaced. One company with whom we are familiar had a corporate mantra about stimulating breakthrough ideas. Trouble was, few could figure out all the random twists, turns, and appropriate political blessings required to ever get an idea advanced. Compare that with another company's approach, where they have monthly sessions that allow people to get together and work for a few days on building the cases for some great ideas. Those opportunities are then presented to key executives, who listen, challenge and coach the idea teams on how to best proceed in getting the ideas implemented.

Do people in your organization know how to get their ideas heard? And what kind of coaching or advice are they able to get from you or others, so they are fully equipped to advance their ideas onward and upward?

You have to treat breakthrough ideas, and their creators differently from the day to day, continuous improvement ideas. There are too many managers today echoing the slogan, "don't bring me half-baked ideas, bring me solutions." That may be fine with cost cutting suggestions or relative simple problems, but it rarely works for blockbuster opportunities.

So what do people do in these situations, when they have a promising premise, but need some time and help to flush it out? Some might form an informal skunkworks group and work on it in their spare time (assuming they have any), while others may continue to merely dabble at it until they just lose interest or a competitor does it first. A few might even quit their jobs and pursue their blockbuster on their own terms. But they certainly won't take it to their boss - and why should they.

How many great ideas in your own company do you think have been suppressed or walked out the door because of the "half-baked" attitude? Breakthrough ideas always encounter a number of barriers before they can prove themselves. Don't you be another one. Instead, help people get better prepared to overcome the tough ones that already exist.

Be committed to building a pipeline of breakthrough ideas. You need to examine the kinds of ideas that are most frequently being addressed today. Are you receiving some really eye-popping ideas, or are the majority more of a "super-sized" incremental improvement? Are they truly growth oriented in nature or additional ways to cut costs? Do the ideas create real value, or merely the illusion of value?

Since relatively few real blockbuster ideas can actually turn into raging triumphs, a pipeline will give you those much needed options, increasing your changes of success. With a constant flow of big ideas, you will be able to figure out which ones will best enable you to capture to the territories of new market share or profitability, while avoiding a large number of those arrows!

Being Personally Involved

We expect leaders to set the example, so let me close with a couple of thoughts about your own personal involvement in a blockbuster. Hopefully you will find these helpful as you pursue your own daring idea, or as advice to other people as they aggressively strive to advance their own.

First, if you aspire to take on more responsibility and lead larger organizations, do not hesitate to get behind something that can make a big, big difference. Yes, a blockbuster is filled with risk, but getting associated with a big idea is a very effective way to get noticed in an organization of any size.

Next, you must be deeply passionate about the idea, in order to have the resolve and stamina to overcome all the barriers you will face. Don't blame other people if you are unprepared to see it through to the end.

And finally, implementation is the ultimate measure of success, not the brilliance of the idea itself. Having a blockbuster idea, even when supported by a solid business case, means nothing if it remains merely a dream.

So get ready for some tough leadership work, because turning the dream into reality is the hard part. You will have to convince the right people to stand with you. You'll have to overcome the endless stream of brick walls and trap doors that are waiting to derail you at any time. And somehow, you will have get all the various pieces put together in just the right way, so the idea can take root and become a smashing success in everyone's eyes.


Steven C. Coats is Managing Partner of International Leadership Associates - dedicated to developing leaders that inspire other people to do the best work of their lives. Contact Steven at http://www.i-lead.com .

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