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Thinking Askew - Learning innovation from pop culture

Well hello there! Today I'm testing out something slightly different, namely putting in an entire ess
Thinking Askew - Learning innovation from pop culture
By Alf Rehn • Issue #4 • View online
Well hello there! Today I’m testing out something slightly different, namely putting in an entire essay (OK, a column) into this newsletter. Wrote it for a UK business magazine, but as I like the theme I thought I would share it with you. Please let me know if this is something you like, or something you detest! You can also just skip it, and scroll down for two edifying articles and one piece of sheer madness. All the best, Alf

What can pop culture teach us about innovation?
Popular culture – we all love it, no matter how much some of us try to hide it. It speaks to something deep down inside of us, and nourishes us with its recognizable story-lines, entertaining twists, and pleasing acts of closure. We may not all enjoy the same genres, but we all have our own guilty pleasures. These might be action B-movies, sappy romance novels, or comic books, but for each of us there is some pop culture that amuses and amazes us. At the same time, pop culture has always been seen as a bit tawdry, something more suitable for lesser minds. 
In the field of innovation, this has meant that there is no shortage of books about learning innovation secrets from great men (and yes, it’s always men who are referenced), and some works that emphasize the value of the fine arts for innovation, but little in the way of true engagement with the lessons pop culture can teach us. Now, this could of course be done in several ways. The usual way would be to look to a popular culture hero (Batman! Always Batman…) and then spin some innovation secrets out of this. My interest here, however, is more about the general category of pop culture. What might this teach a manager keen to innovate more an better? Well, here are a few pointers:
Nothing beats a good story
Innovation is invention plus a narrative. Without a good story – which can be told through language but also through design – an invention will not be adopted in a way that would make it meaningful to call it an innovation. Pop culture understands it, and makes sure that even if the characters might be wafer-thin, the story moves ahead briskly. For innovators, remember that the product or service is not enough, you need to create a recognizable context and an engaging way to use it. Whether it is freedom, convenience, or status, your users need a story.
The classics are classics for a reason
The reason we keep returning to the story of Robin Hood is not because there aren’t other good stories, but because there’s an enduring value in a classic. In a similar way, innovations can go much further if they stick to classic values – design, usability, time saved. Having a functional but weird product won’t save you if your competition launches a recognizable classic. 
Don’t overcomplicate things
One of the characteristics of pop culture is that it doesn’t overcomplicate things. There are good guys and bad guys, and a special object to pursue. There might be a twist in the tale, but frankly, it’s optional. The same goes for innovation. Keep things as simple as possible, keep the user experience as easy and pleasant at possible, and don’t confuse the user unless absolutely necessary. 
The villain is the most important character
Heroes, by and large, are boring. Villains are innately interesting. Great pop culture has a clear villain in mind, for what would Batman be without his enemies? For an innovation, the enemies are more abstract, but should be communicated just as clearly. Is it high prices? Hard-to-use technology? Unethical practices? Show us the villain, and see the value of your innovation soar. 
It’s not the idea, it’s the execution
Many of the greatest stories in popular culture are at heart similar, even identical. A boy (or a girl) sets out on an adventure. A boy goes looking for a girl, or vice versa. Someone’s parents or partner (or dog) gets killed, cue bloody revenge. These can then be executed beautifully (John Wick) or abysmally (about 90% of action movies). For innovators, it is important to note that ideas are plentiful, and the true masters are those who can take a basic and undeveloped idea, and spin this into a masterpiece. 
Stuff that's excited me as of late
Heinz's Cadbury Creme Egg Mayonnaise Seems Like An April Fools' Joke, But Is Actually Quite Real
Research: Why Managers Ignore Employees’ Ideas
The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI
Yeah, baby!
Yeah, baby!
Until we meet again, and as always, sharing is caring!
Did you enjoy this issue?
Alf Rehn

Professor of management & innovation, speechifier, and popular culture geek.

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