Creative Problem Solving Lessons from "Old School"
Flipping through the channels over the weekend, I came across one of my favorite movies of all time: Old School. Like the subject of this clever Onion article, I ended up neglecting my plans and re-watching this comedy classic in its entirety. I saw the movie from a whole new perspective, a business innovation perspective. The movie is fundamentally about a group of guys implementing a seemingly-absurd idea that breaks the mold. They are creative problem solving geniuses. Believe it or not, this comedy can teach us all a few things about business opportunities, innovation initiatives, and creative problem solving skills. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this hilarious movie and the serious insights they contain.
Wish for the Moon
“Because this is a very big idea my friends. We’re talking about a non-exclusive, egalitarian brotherhood where community status and, more importantly age, have no bearing whatsoever.” – Beanie
One of the best ways to come up with truly creative, stretchy ideas is to suspend reality and wish for the moon. You don’t want to limit yourself to the current status quo or the way things have been done in the past. As Robert Kennedy once said “some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not.” Beanie dreamed that there could be a fraternity open to everyone, regardless of age or enrollment in the college, and asked “why not?” And that has got to be the first time Vince Vaughn’s character in Old School has been compared to Bobby Kennedy.
Create a Diverse, Cross-Functional Team
Mitch: Wait, who’s this guy?
Beanie: Oh, that’s Blue. He’s an old navy vet who hangs around my store a lot. Don’t worry about him, he’s legit.
Mitch: He looks like he’s one hundred years old. He wants to pledge?
Beanie: You kidding me? Old man river can’t shut up about it.
The strongest implementation teams are those that bring together individuals from diverse perspectives and backgrounds to collaborate with one another. Age/experience is one area where diversity is valuable. Wizened veterans can share their knowledge and experience; while young guns can offer energy, naive creativity, and a fresh perspective. Ideally, you want to have both on your innovation teams. The Old School fraternity mixed college students, middle aged men, and the old-timer, Blue. It helped that they were all aligned behind a clear agenda: partying.
Permission to Play
“Frank, this is a safe place. A place where we can feel free sharing our feelings. Think of my office as a nest in a tree of trust and understanding. We can say anything here.” – Therapist
The best creative thinking takes place when people feel comfortable offering up ideas without fear of consequences. It’s important to give innovation teams permission to play, wish for the moon, and explore absurdity. Like Frank’s therapy sessions, invention meetings should be a safe place. We often tell people when we are brainstorming we want the really “out there” ideas, the ones that could get them fired if they were uttered outside of this meeting. This needs to be a genuine commitment though. Frank’s therapist said they were in the tree of trust, but his wife then proceeded to bazooka him with the expression on her face.
“Guys, this is a very special occasion. The Godfather himself has decided to grace us with his presence.” – Beanie
In order for a new business venture to get off the ground, it is critical to have support from executive sponsors. Innovation teams need to know that someone, preferably at the C-level, is going to provide them with resources and air cover. When we work with clients, one of the first things we do is clarify who is the decision maker. A decision maker is in a position to say yes to the following question: “if the team comes up with something really breakthrough, will you be able to approve the time, money, and staffing necessary for implementation?” The sponsor does not need to be involved at every stage of the process, but he or she does need to provide approval at critical junctures. The fraternity never would have happened if Mitch, “the Godfather,” hadn’t granted his approval and let them use his house.
Evaluate the Idea with an Open Mind
Mitch: But this is my house! I live here, Beanie. I’m 30 years old! None of us are enrolled in the college!
Beanie: I understand that. You’re focused on all the wrong sort of details. Did you or did you not have a good time at the party?
Humans are terrific at pointing out flaws. It’s human nature. When we come across something new, our brains try and fit it into a familiar frame of reference. Our brain rapidly toggles through existing patterns and, if the puzzle pieces don’t fit, a red flag goes up. We immediately kick into troubleshooting mode. We tell ourselves that voicing these objections or “playing Devil’s Advocate” is constructive feedback. And there is a time and a place for that, but in order to truly keep an open mind it is helpful to start with what we like about the idea. In an Open Minded Evaluation, the first step is to gather all of the pluses. Beanie understands this intuitively. He ignores Mitch’s concerns and instead focuses on the positive: the awesome time they had at the party. Beanie had an idea that broke the mold, and he was not going to let any of the issues Mitch brought up get in his way.
I never thought I would find innovation takeaways in a Will Ferrell movie but there you have it. What do you think? What is your favorite movie that contains unexpected business insights?
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