Ironman is a rather well know series of films about a guy (Tony Stark) with a metal suit which flies, has advanced AI and he lives his life like a corporate James Bond. It’s also a cautionary tale about the perils which follow innovation and about missing opportunities.
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The Ironman suit wasn’t the innovation
The suit looks cool but is essentially some hardware built on the foundation of the real innovation – Tony’s Ark reactor; an almost unlimited, clean and free power source. Its inception came from one of the best drivers for innovation there is – necessity and scarcity. Tony was A) going to die unless he created something and, B) was being forced at gunpoint to build something with bits of spare metal and sticky tape with the only help being one single helper with no relevant skills.
And with his invention came a wave of disruption (quite literally)
What he produced was a device capable of producing enough power to both run himself and a shiny red suit with rocket boosters. His invention was enough to stimulate incredible development by his competitors (enemies) through equivalent products and variations on weapons required to meet the new challenge. Following a period of maturity, his commoditised product spawned a range of suits in a flotilla? Squadron? operated by the US Government.
And then the iteration phase (Ironman suit 6s)
Sadly, improvements to the original Ironman suit have broadly followed a pattern of incremental improvements to the look and feel (shinier with gold bits), the User Interface (the AI robot guy he talks to) and to the self-driving function
With the arrival of a hugely effective competitor (aliens), he is now reliant on a number of partners. These include a guy who is 100 years old with no obvious extra skills (Captain America) and a guy who is really good with a bow and arrow (Hawkeye).
They have a cartel (the Avengers) on planet saving technology which they both protect feverishly and limit its use in the wider world. (it’s the Apple iRonman)
How successful therefore has Tony Starks killer innovation been? It’s essentially boiled down to the Ironman suit and a building which looks nice and lights up. In the 10 years since the invention of Ironman, he has a better version of Ironman, but no new major products. He has fallen into an old corporate quick sand of creating something unique and truly differentiating but then falling back on old glories in improving what exists and not thinking about the future and the next big thing.
Kodak essentially invented cheap photographic film (and then digital cameras got them), Blockbuster ran the rental video world before Netflix. Microsoft went through a kicking before getting back to partial world dominance. Look today at Tesla (tonnes of debt, Solarcity anyone?, huge targets set and slow to ramp up), Netflix (not making any money, competitors gearing up for a serious fight (Disney). Everyone loves these companies but they need to achieve world domination or they will fail.
1000 posts have praised Elon Musk for planning a $45b pay day when Tesla is worth $650b but in order to do that, Tesla would have to worth more than the current top 10 car companies put together.
Saving the world, time to leave it to others.
If you take Tony Stark out of the Ironman movies, do you actually lose anything?
Let’s go back to Tony’s main innovation; his Ark Reactor. My suggestion to him, sell-off the Ironman business and sell the AI and power source for the suits. He’ll make a tonne of cash, allow people more suited to saving the planet to take over and he can focus on taking the next step. He already looks like he can’t be bothered with most of it and he never gets on with the real patriotic types.
He’s committed to Ironman because of nostalgia and because of the control. He is Bill Gates in the early 2000’s clinging on to Microsoft as the world was beginning to overtake him. Like Bill though, Tony is a visionary and great innovator, he just needs something new to solve.
Change the context
The biggest disruption comes when a product changes the context for what we do and how we live our lives. The iPhone was revolutionary because it changed what we do when we were not at a computer. The train was even more revolutionary because it changed our regard for distance.
Tony Stark’s innovation is to allow the possibility of not seeing energy as a cost or an impediment. You always look at energy/electricity as a cost (both financial and social) which means the objective is consistently to look at how to reduce consumption or find smarter/more efficient ways to produce it. If however energy was a free and unlimited source, what would it allow and what products could he be thinking about building to take advantage of it.
Rather than Ironman he could have started with Bitcoin mining (because it’s so hot right now), with an astounding processing capacity he could be smashing the competition both in the mining and in the blockchain bit.
The energy production industry would cease to exist in its current form almost overnight and after a few years of massive change to the grid and the network. ‘Tony’s MyHome Ark Reactor’ TM could take every home off the grid.
Stark Industries Maglev Hyperloop trans-sonic commuter trains? Ironman brand 3D printer and DIY at home aluminium micro-smelter?
I am looking forward to the next Ironman sequel showing the creation of a As A Service model for Ironman Tech. The launch of an energy joint venture between Stark Industries and Thor and the creation of a new cryptocurrency (Ironcoin) to fund Bruce Banner fledgling nano-robot pharma start-up.
Tony Stark will have been ousted to lead R&D leaving Pepper Potts to continue to run the company to astounding success.
Crazy but real
Yes crazy, but there is a basis of fact in the above. There are times where countries are producing more electricity that they need (most days now in Scotland when it’s windy – so most days). Even in coal country Queensland with solar, at some times the spot rate for electricity is under 0 therefore which technically means someone is being paid to consume it. Tesla is pushing batteries to allow people to go off grid. There is a working demo of the hyperloop.
The lesson from the Ironman
- That innovation is only as good as what it changes and what it allows you to do – in creating something amazing, what it disrupts and what that allows you do is the real transformation
- The change to your perception is important. By changing the dynamic of how you think about constraints and how you review possibilities, you can try to identify real ideas
- Keep adding fuel – the points you get for great innovation today lose their value in time, you have to take an innovation and improve it but you have to keep adding things which are new
How to do this
It depends on how you want to define innovation and how you set the context.
1) It’s about doing something new for you – you find other companies, other academics, other tools which do things and you think about how you can apply that to you.
In a workshop context, you want to discuss things outside in e.g. ask a question like if Space X ran our finance department, what would they do (interestingly, they are all about vertical integration and cost management). Or everything as a service ……
2) It’s about doing something new (full stop) – you think about what’s never been done, you ask why, and you think about ‘perhaps if’.
In a workshop context, you select an example of something that’s never been done and work through how it might work. The emphasis is on steering clear of reasons why you can’t. e.g. suggest that you run your internal operations as a ‘gig economy’ or give everyone in the whole company an average salary with only performance bonuses changing.
3) It’s about changing what something means – distance means time, cost means limit, waiting equals bad. Flip that on its head and work backwards.
In a workshop context, you do some prep to identify big blockers that you have and then you design something which ignores them e.g. if teleporting existed, how would we run our performance management process or as the above didn’t have the cost of electricity, how would be manage sales.
4) It’s about the problem, not the solution – the identification of the real problem takes the time (see design thinking, human centric design etc.). You ignore the solution assuming a few people can crack it and spend the time working out whether it’s the symptom or the disease. We are inefficient because we don’t know what we are doing, because we don’t care enough to ask, because we don’t like our bosses, because they don’t let us take breaks even though we have a pool table and PlayStation which we only play when we aren’t getting paid (solution, everyone gets paid 25% extra during their breaks)
In a workshop context, start anywhere and dig until you get what you are looking for, do this with anyone customers/staff/suppliers. Take the time in advance or set it up in the session, take the time to get to a eureka moment.