What Marvel's Blockbuster Machine Can Teach Organizations About Innovation

Harvard Business Review identified the 3 principles of innovation driving Marvel Studios' unprecedented success. Here's how we apply similar principles to our custom tool development at Six Seconds and how you can apply the principles in your organization.

Here’s how we apply the principles at Six Seconds – and how you can apply them in your organization.

Movie sequels have a well-earned reputation for disappointing. But there’s one surprising exception — sequels produced by Marvel Studios. Marvel achieves massive success innovating its cast of comic book characters and imaginary worlds in ever more creative ways – with outstanding results at the box office. How do they do it? According to a research study published in Harvard Business Review, Marvel’s success can be attributed to a 3-step model of innovation they follow. Six Seconds follows a nearly identical process in its innovation of custom emotional intelligence tools – and these principles could help your organization with its own innovative projects. The principles are the following: 1. Select for experienced inexperience 2. Leverage a stable core and 3. Continuously challenge the formula.

Let’s take a look at how these play out at Marvel, Six Seconds, and how it could apply in your organization.

1. Select for experienced inexperience

How this works at Marvel: Of the 20 directors Marvel has hired since 2008, only 5 had prior experience directing a movie in the superhero genre. They weren’t random people off the street, of course; they were all critically acclaimed directors. But most had expertise in other genres – horror, comedy, espionage, Shakespeare – and had worked on indie films with much smaller budgets. This decision is intentional. Marvel wants directors with different perspectives and complementary skill sets, creating a sort of Venn diagram with Marvel. On the one end is the director’s unique knowledge and skills, whether that’s character development, a certain cultural perspective, or funny dialogue. On the other side is Marvel’s expertise with special effects, understanding the original characters and storylines, and of course marketing. Marvel makes clear to the directors: “Be you, bring the unique knowledge you have, and we’ll help with the CGI stuff.”

How it’s applied at Six Seconds: Similarly to how Marvel hires directors, Six Seconds seeks out partners with deep expertise in a particular sector or industry when it creates a custom emotional intelligence assessment tool. The partners bring a depth of knowledge about a particular topic or industry, whether it’s sales (EQFIT Sales Profile), organizational change (SEI-LTC), or trust (Trust Style Inventory). They combine their expertise with Six Seconds’ wealth of knowledge about psychometric assessments and building tools. “It’s about building on and extending the range of the SEI in a compelling way, to meet specific market needs,” says Tomasso Procicchiani, Six Seconds’ lead Research & Development engineer who spearheads Six Seconds’ creation of custom EQ tools with Preferred Partners around the globe. “Innovation requires a delicate balance between continuity and novelty, and our process reflects that.”

How you can use it: How could you use the expertise of others, either within your organization or outside of it, to turn a fresh eye on another part of your organization? For example, the next time you’re troubleshooting an issue in your operations department, why not invite a strategic thinker from your marketing team to join the meeting? Or if you love the look of someone else’s website, invite the designer to work with someone on your team to redesign your website.

HBR identified the 3 principles behind Marvel Studios’ unprecedented success. What are they?

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2. Leverage a stable core

How this works at Marvel: To balance the new voice and style of its directors, Marvel holds on to a small percentage of its crew from film to film. This provides a sense of continuity to their products and creates an established community for new voices to join.  Without the stable core, Marvel’s films would risk losing the familiarity that serves as a foundation for any innovation to flourish. “Organizations that preserve the core, revitalize the periphery, and understand relationship networks can enable renewal, dynamism, and flexibility,” says Harvard Business Review. “They can attract an influx of new ideas while enabling continuity by keeping the overall organizational structure almost intact.”

How it’s applied at Six Seconds: While Six Seconds’ Preferred Partners span the globe and have varying perspectives and goals, there is a stable Six Seconds research team that has been creating rigorous psychological assessments for well over a decade. Six Seconds’ CEO Josh Freedman developed the SEI, Six Seconds’ flagship emotional intelligence assessment and the baseline for custom tools, with Italian business professor Max Ghini in 2006. Prochicchiani, Six Seconds’ lead Research & Development engineer, brings a wealth of experience himself. These two, along with Project Manager John Dodds, make up the stable core of the team that makes custom assessment tools with partners from all over the world, from Nassau, Bahamas to Sydney, Australia. It’s the expertise and continuity they provide that allows new ideas to come in without losing essential structure.

How you can use it: Innovation can’t happen in a vacuum. While new people provide fresh ideas, vibrancy, and needed energy, think about the core, established people you want on a new team to provide that essential background knowledge and grounding to the new team. They can help vet the value of new products and ideas, as well as having an idea of the logistics behind them.

3. Challenge the formula

How this works at Marvel: The most remarkable part of Marvel’s success is that sequels often struggle at the box office. Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, explained in Variety that pushing the boundaries is integral to the studio’s success: “I’ve always believed in expanding the definition of what a Marvel Studios movie could be. We try to keep audiences coming back in greater numbers by doing the unexpected and not simply following a pattern or a mold or a formula.” Consequently, argues HBR, Marvel’s fans have come to expect the unexpected, making challenging the formula a part of its formula for success. Innovation breeds more innovation.

How it’s applied at Six Seconds: “Because of the process we go through for developing custom tools, it’s basically inevitable that each one will challenge the formula of the SEI,” Prochicchiani says. “By that I mean, we always start with the same question: ‘Why do you want a custom assessment tool? What will it allow you to do that you can’t do now?’” Since all Preferred Partners have access to the SEI, this means almost by default that they want to expand on or change it in some way – to challenge the formula. “It can be tempting to stick only to what we already know and love, but innovation is about finding the balance between familiarity and novelty. We normally think of innovation as something brand new, but in reality it always blends the old and the new.”

How you can use it: Ask yourself: what is essential to your product or service? Now, of that, what is really essential? Now think about how to experiment with the rest. How could you deliver your product or service with a new formula, in a completely unexplored way?

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