The problems of innovation

From a piece by the Trib’s Mo Ryan on the new J.J. Abrams show Fringe:

At a Monday Q&A session on the show at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, J.J. Abrams, one of the show’s co-creators, recalled watching an “Alias” episode late in that ABC show’s run.

“I watched a few minutes, and I was so confused,” Abrams said. “[I]t was impenetrable. I was like, ‘I know I should understand this. I read the [script] — who the [expletive] is that guy?’”

Glad I wasn’t the only one.

Abrams seems to me like one of those creative guys who gets easily bored. The last three shows he’s done that I liked started to go off the rails in their third seasons: Felicity, Alias and Lost. (By all accounts, Lost regained its footing in its 4th, but I’d stopped watching by then.)

This is because Abrams usually gets involved with a new project. Those projects were Alias, Lost, and Mission Impossible III, respectively. No one would argue that those weren’t all worthy projects. Alias and Lost walked a new path for network television shows (though to be fair Alias had much of the brush cleared by Buffy) and I still think Mission Impossible III is one of the smarter action movies of the past five years.

So what’s to be learned here? Three things:

People who are true innovators need to be challenged in order to keep coming up with interesting new ideas. If the opportunities to do that aren’t available in the organization, they will go someplace else to find them.

Also, innovation requires evolving maintenance. It’s not enough to create new ways of doing things. You also need the right people in place to maintain the tone and structure. In organizations, this means one or two wunderkinds aren’t enough: you need a group of people who understand the underlying goals of a project and how to make new additions serve them. You want to add social networking features to your site? Fine, good. But why? And what purpose will they ultimately serve. Not every site needs to be a new Facebook. But if those new features are used to highlight excellent content that might otherwise get ignored, that’s innovation that serves your site.

Similarly, on creative projects, there can’t be a brain trust. This is often difficult with auteur works like Abrams’s but again Lost has shown that having the right lieutenants in place makes the battle that much easier. In the workplace, maintain a knowledge base through Wikis and share evolving information throughout the group often. The idea of redundant systems isn’t just for servers. When an expert develops an expert process, note it. That way when your expert leaves for a new project, the rest of your team won’t be trying to find its footing for the next 3-6 months. And much like a television show, it’s important to have regular “story meetings” that involve everyone to discuss that year’s overall themes, arcs and possible new plot developments (Oh and do these in person so people can see each other. Even video conferencing is better than conference calls facilitated by speakerphones.)

Oh I almost forgot: Don’t add the half-sister of your leader to your crew, especially if she is related to the lead antagonist. Eventually, she’s just going to end up as an evil zombie who you’ll need to put into a coma. You might think that’s just applicable to Alias, but really that’s just a solid rule across the board.

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