Where no man has gone before.
That evocative line — updated to the more politically correct “Where no one has gone before” in Star Trek: The Next Generation — conjures up much about the voyage of discovery to the new frontier. But it’s also a great description of innovation. As traumatic as the J. J. Abrams reboot of the franchise might have been to some of the Star Trek old guard, the films have innovatively, and more successfully, leveraged the Star Trek universe more than any other attempt since the show went off the air.
If you’re not a Trekker, here’s a brief history. Star Trek was a TV show on NBC from 1966-1969. While it never achieved a major following during its initial run, it achieved a cult following in later years as people watched it in syndication. An animated series followed, as well as a string of movies starring the original cast, and three attempts at updating the series on television (with Star Trek: TNG having its own movies as well).
These efforts, while they each had their fans and detractors, achieved varying degrees of success, but to many, the movies just didn’t really “feel” like Star Trek. Moreover, there was a legion of fans ready to pounce on any departure from the canon that the franchise had created over the years. And finally, the original Star Trek actors were aging; William Shatner, who originally played Captain James Kirk, is now over 80, and cast members DeForest Kelley (McCoy) and James Doohan (Scotty) have passed away.
While some attempts at rebooting a franchise have been successful — Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, and some versions of Batman, for example — others have not. How many people remember Superman Returns? And yet Smallville was successful, largely because it was able to escape the trap of having so much history and canon that it becomes a straitjacket.
Enter Star Trek, and innovation.
What was innovative about the Star Trek reboot is that it found a plausible way to have the same characters, more or less, as the original series, take advantage of today’s movie technology and go back to the Enterprise’s early adventures. Yet it was able to throw away everything the original series had said about the early years without having a bunch of Star Trek nerds popping up to point out that Kirk didn’t actually meet Spock until such-and-such a time and what about the visit to Alpha Centauri and so on. Such devotion is great in a fan base, but challenging in story development.
In the same way, what makes innovation challenging is the group that says “We’ve never done it that way,” “but we’re a software company [shades of Dr. McCoy’s “I’m a doctor, not an escalator!”],” and so on. To be innovative requires the ability to tease out the exact expertise of the company, and decouple it from the things that are holding it back, much as described by Forrester’s Dr. James McQuivey in his book Digital Disruption.
This is why you’re seeing all these companies going “We’re not a hardware company, we’re a solutions company” and “we’re not a travel company, we’re an experiences company” and so on. While it’s so much of a cliché that it’s laughable, it shows how those companies are working to jettison those aspects of their past successes that are now holding them back — in the same way that your company needs to as well.
Live long and prosper.
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