"Avengers: Endgame”, the latest film in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” franchise, has set the record for being the fastest film to gross USD $2 billion. However, it’s easy to forget that in 1996, Marvel Studios had filed for bankruptcy – and yet today, they are one of the premier studios in the world.
Endgame's success does not come as a surprise, and not least because Marvel knew audiences would widely anticipate the extended cinematic experience. It is also easy for those in the innovation and technology world to draw parallels to seeing this band of heroes fighting for their existence against one giant entity, ready to wipe them out with a snap of his fingers.
So, what concrete lessons can we learn from this battle between the Avengers and the evil demigod Thanos, with regards to the challenges we face with innovation?
Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is a genius inventor, constantly developing new, futuristic abilities for the challenges ahead. Whilst these included great things such as arc reactor (complex adaptive systems?), repulsor blast (cybersecurity governance?) and of course Ultron (machine learning?), the greater question was whether or not he would be willing to help others make use of his inventions, even in the face of being wiped out by Thanos.
In fact, innovation and adaptation have been the core to Marvel’s journey from bankruptcy to being recognised as being one of the world’s most innovative companies (as per Fast Company’s 2018 list). Besides their obvious talent in creating a universe ripe for storytelling, they aren’t afraid to make “surprising creative choices” in hiring directors with no prior experience in the comics world, letting go of some established partnerships in order to refresh the creative direction, and all whilst sticking to one of the most ambitious production schedules in the world.
Learn fast & cheap
In Endgame, the Avengers encounter a scenario requiring the mastery of quantum theory – a deep topic. To perfect their plan, they need to test it repeatedly with one of the Avengers physically assisting with “test-runs”, and at the same time run a large number of computer simulations to develop a model for future pathways.
Just like the Avengers, organizations need to constantly test and optimize the fitness of their ideas. To do so in the face of changing customer needs, they must implement short build-test-learn loops and accept to pivot whenever their assumptions are proven wrong by the experiments. Customers interact with our services daily, and there are a staggering amount of simple, safe ways to capture their feedback and information on their habits and behaviors (for instance, simple monitoring of an IP address as it traverses through your website). The customer is anonymous, but their actions are visible.
Smart and innovative companies have already instituted approaches to reduce costs and increase success rates even before launching their product to customers. Learning fast and failing cheap is all about making smarter decisions earlier and exceeding your customer’s expectations (or in the case of the Avengers, the expectations of their enemies).
Team work is essential for innovation
The Avengers are a high performing team not because they all have the same powers, but because they have diversified skill sets and also because they share the same goal. Captain America takes charge during fierce battle situations. Tony Stark is adept at blending technological advances with witty and ultimately very human applications. Bruce Banner is an expert gamma radiation specialist with a great brain and a huge body, Thor is empowered by the raw force of the skies, Captain Marvel has supersonic speed… I think you get the drift.
To help create an innovative culture in organisations, leaders need to acknowledge talents of their team members, but also encourage the team to adopt a collaborative mindset throughout the entire innovation process. You need the people who have ideas, then you need the people who advance and refine them you need the people who can turn those into reality – and you also need those with a collaborative mindset, who will perform whatever task is needed to fill in the gaps. Team diversity can shrink the learning curve as it fast-tracks collaboration, especially when teams are faced with frequent changes and unforeseen circumstances.
Also, having a common goal helps team to focus on the task at hand. In high performing teams, everyone is not a superhero, but a leader, each one finding their way to help achieve the team’s goal by making use of their strengths and covering for each other if there are any weaknesses.