What Hollywood’s Best Directors Can Teach Us About Innovation

Director.pngPhoto by Jakob Owens via Unsplash

One of my favorite movie series of all time is Back to the Future. Back to the Future gets everything right. On a macro level, the story is about an ordinary kid that gets thrown into an extraordinary situation stuck 30 years in the past. He spends the rest of the movie trying to get home and along the way learns that “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” But it’s not just the overall plot that makes Back to the Future great; it’s the thousand small details. During the opening scene as the camera pans across Doc Brown’s empty lab, you can hear the faint sound of a TV commercial in the background proclaiming that “October is inventory time at Statler Toyota.” Two movies later, as our hero finds himself in the Old West, he rides past a sign for “Honest” Joe Statler’s horse and buggy business, suggesting that the Statler family has been in the transportation industry for generations. These blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments demonstrate the filmmaker’s attention to detail and inspire the loyalty of countless fans like myself who watch these movies year after year.

Like film directors, innovators need to actively focus on the small details of their production while simultaneously weaving together an overarching, coherent narrative. This constant shifting of their point of view, between big picture themes and small, focused details is essential to creating one complete whole, assuring the story is woven into every level. But it’s not easy. Continually shifting perspectives can be disorienting. And it can be difficult to know when it’s the right time to focus on the big picture or on the small details. What’s more, directors also have to keep these two different points of view from conflicting with each other. A small detail that’s out of place can distract viewers from the overall flow of the film. Conversely, a film made up of amazing details or individual scenes with no overarching message will leave viewers lost and unsatisfied.

As innovators, we have these concerns, too. Like film directors, we’re creating experiences for other people. These experiences are made up of a sequential flow as our users interact with our designs.

It’s up to us to make sure they complete that journey successfully by appropriately balancing attention to detail with the construction of an overall purpose.

Seeing the Big Picture

In order to avoid losing track of the big picture, you must first know what the big picture is. Obviously, all innovation is about making someone’s life better, but any particular design is much more specific than that. Just as a director understands the screenplay before a film starts production, an innovator needs to have a firm grasp on the challenge they are helping their users overcome before they begin work.

So how do you know the challenge your design is going to solve? In some cases, it will be terribly obvious. You might even have a boss that’s straight up telling you, “Design a payment system so our banking customers can transfer money to their friends and family.” Bingo, piece of cake. More often the mandate will be, “We need to do something with blockchain.” And that’s a problem. Those projects are disasters waiting to happen. You’ll end up delivering something in twice the time it should have taken and ultimately isn’t quite what anybody wants. Your innovation will be like a movie that has award-winning special effects, but no one can follow the plot.

Working on these kinds of projects can feel like you’re wandering around in a wasteland. You don’t really have good criteria for determining when you’re done, so you’re never quite sure where the finish line is. And your users aren’t exactly thrilled. But — and this is the worst part — they don’t flat out reject you either. Sure, they’re still interested in blockchain technology. But because you’re not exactly sure how a blockchain payment system will make your users’ lives better than a traditional payment system, there’s no way anyone would be able to justify purchasing your innovation.

So don’t follow the same path as countless others. Before you start your design, know exactly what your user’s story is and how your design will be instrumental in helping them overcome a challenge. That’s what the big picture is. Without that clear story of overcoming a challenge, the people you’re designing for will look at your innovation and ask, “So what?” Nothing could be more heartbreaking for an innovator, but you can avoid this. It’s your job to have the answer to “So what?” and to build that answer into the soul of your design. It should be top of mind for you and your team — and at the heart of any communication about the innovation.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Small Details.pngPhoto by João Silas via Unsplash

A firm grasp on the big picture is necessary, but not sufficient. You also have to get all the small details right. Film directors don’t just shoot the major scenes and call it a day. They obsess over all the details of the production from the colors of the wardrobes to the cuts of the final edit. For innovators, it’s just as important to sweat the small stuff as it is for Hollywood directors. If we get a detail wrong, it can ruin the entire experience. In a movie, one bad special effect can immediately jolt the audience out of their immersion in the story and instead have them thinking about how it was poorly made. Not only will we have failed to make people’s lives better with our innovation, but we will have tarnished our reputation as competent designers, and it’s not likely they’ll ever look to us for solutions in the future.

Ok, ok, details are important; we get it, but how do we leverage the mindset of an innovator to get the small details right? Well, all of the details have to pass a straightforward test: do they exist in service of the big picture? If not, they’re extraneous and a distraction. When evaluating the small details of your project, ask yourself how each one furthers the purpose of your innovation. This question should be your constant companion as you work on your design. Together, you and it can make sure the entirety of your experience is coherent and consistent.

There can, however, be too much of a good thing. It’s possible to get too bogged down in the details and lose the forest for the trees. Even if a detail is consistent with your innovation’s overall purpose, it’s still possible to fail the test of “Does this serve the big picture?” even though at first you might be tempted to say that yes, this detail, in fact, would enhance the design. An erroneous answer in the affirmative in this case misses something crucial to the success of your project — you. You only have so much time. It (like most of your other resources) is fixed. So you have to choose how you spend it very wisely. It doesn’t do anyone any good to blow your entire budget on getting one detail absolutely perfect if, in the end, the project doesn’t actually help your users with their challenge.

The Benefits of Balance

The mindset of a director is about caring about the big picture and getting the details right. But most importantly, It’s about knowing how to balance the two. And it’s about knowing when, as an innovator, you need to switch your view. First, it’s important for you to be aware of which perspective you’re employing at any given point to make a decision. This self-knowledge is critical so you can be sure that you’re applying the right criteria to your decisions. It’s also important to communicate your current point of view to the rest of your team. Nothing’s more frustrating than trying to explain to someone the value of a particular small detail when all they can focus on at the moment is the concerns of the big picture.

Switching back and forth between the big picture view and the small details view is actually a boon to creativity. Creative insights happen when you connect two previously unassociated concepts. By constantly moving back and forth between the two director points of view, you can actually cross-pollinate insights unique to the two views. In the Innovator’s DNA, Clayton Christensen refers to this as “zooming in and out” and cites it as a key source for innovative insights. In architecture, this is referred to as designing in different scales, from the broad strokes of the site plan to the minutia of the section details.

You may find that your brain naturally tends to favor one perspective over the other. You might find the big picture easy to consider, but find a hard time staying focused on any one minute detail. Or you might find that you get so absorbed in the details that it’s hard to remind yourself of the big picture. Luckily, we can cultivate the mindset of a director to bring our perspectives into balance.

Training Your Brain

MindfulnessPhoto by Kalen Emsley via Unsplash

If you’re having trouble staying focused on particular details, you can practice what Richard Davidson, PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls focused-attention meditation. In this form of meditation, you practice focusing your eyes and your attention on one object for about ten minutes a day. By doing so, you strengthen your prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for maintaining attention.

If you find yourself missing the forest for the trees, Davidson suggests open-monitoring attention. In this exercise, you maintain an open presence and keep track of what catches your attention. Then you focus on that object without letting any verbal thoughts arise. Then you move on to the next object that makes its way into your consciousness. The key is just to be open and notice what your mind is paying attention to. This form of mediation keeps your mind receptive to new stimuli, so you don’t get too absorbed by a single aspect of your project.

Cultivating the mindset of a director is really about mastering your attention. Designing great projects require attention to both the big picture and the small details. Focusing on the big picture ensures that your design will help your users overcome their challenge. Focusing on the small details ensures that you’re creating an immersive, complete experience. It’s only natural that some of us would favor one perspective over the other, but the key to having the mindset of a director is training your attention to balance your focus between the small details and the big picture.

Published by Ben Haefele

Product Designer. Innovator. Aspiring Ping-Pong Master.

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