Avatar: Lessons On Realizing Your Vision

This week Avatar, James Cameron’s 3D movie, broke an historic barrier by becoming the highest grossing film of all time. It beat out Titanic, also a James Cameron movie. The story of how Cameron engineered this feat offers a valuable lesson for anyone wishing to impact the world. If you want to build a business, launch a product, or drive social change, Cameron’s journey points to a tool-set that all successful innovators use to overcome the fundamental challenge of innovation.

Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the first to point out innovation’s fundamental challenge when he wrote:

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, than to take a lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovation has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

While writing my last book, The Way of Innovation, I got a chance to interview several innovators, from Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus to Dick Hayne, founder of Urban Outfitters. Their experiences follow a shockingly similar pattern to that of Cameron’s journey.

You see, all innovations begin with a new vision that is inconsistent with reality. And successful innovators are able to enroll a critical mass of people in that vision so that it actually becomes reality. I call this the "formation" process. It is like painting a dot painting. You know what you want to create (your vision) and to make it real you must carefully place dot and after dot on the canvas until the world recognizes your vision. Each dot represents a stakeholder that you must enroll in participating in this new "order of the world."

A recent article in BusinessWeek nicely plots out Cameron’s journey. In summary, it shows that for Cameron’s big vision to be real, he would need to enroll four stakeholders: (1) he’d have to convince a massive number of moviegoers to pay 30% premiums over regular movie prices for renting 3D glasses, (2) he’d have to convince movie theaters to upgrade their equipment, (3) he’d have to convince camera companies to improve 3D video technology, and (4) he'd have to convince a studio to fund it all. Each stakeholder had reasons to support his vision and reasons to resist it. Great innovators know how to elevate the former and alleviate the latter.

I don’t have space to walk through how Cameron skillfully untangled that which was causing resistance in each stakeholder, but for illustrative purposes, I want to look at #4 - the movie studios. Fox had the right of first refusal on Avatar’s rights so Cameron was determined to find a way to get them to fund the project at an anticipated cost of $200 million. Fox was  hesitant because this would be one the most expensive movies ever made and they feared he would go over this budget, just as he did with Titanic.

To bring Fox into the fold, Cameron employed a number of tactics. Of course he started with a compelling vision and an eye-catching sample film clip. These are tools all good directors can employ. But when these tactics did not distinguish Cameron’s innovative skill or convince Fox, Cameron went further than the average director would think to.

First, he addressed Fox’s concern about technology by investing his own money, about $12 million, in developing a camera rig that could capture 2D and 3D imagery simultaneously. Second, when Fox looked like it was going to say no, he approached Disney. Disney’s interest brought Fox more firmly to the table. Third, to help reduce Fox’s financial risk, Cameron helped arrange the support a London-based private equity firm, Ingenious Media, which in the last 10 years has raised $8 billion to invest in films such as Night at the Museum, Shaun of the Dead, and Live Free or Die Hard.

With the technology in place, a credible threat in the wings, and someone willing to absorb more than half the risk, Fox green-lighted Avatar.

Cameron’s journey was touch and go. He hit dead ends that would have discouraged many of us and made us simply give in. But like all successful innovators I’ve interviewed, he persisted confident in the value of his vision, painstakingly forcing the dots into place until the tapestry’s vision became evident to everyone.

How do you pursue your vision confidently, even when others say you will fail? How do you predict and handle the resistance your innovation will naturally evoke in your environment? These are the questions that all great innovators must ask and they all realize that the most important perspective is one that clearly illustrates all that will benefit from their vision.

My colleagues and I are now working on several exciting projects that can draw inspiration from Cameron’s story. One of our clients is building what we hope will be the first online multi-player game (think World of Warcraft) tied to a real-world, physical world, allowing you to actually visit the world in which you have been virtually interacting. Another is seeking to transform how heart surgeons treat patients, potentially saving thousands of hearts before needing transplants.

The stakes are high and we must play smart. Ask yourself the following questions to see how you can turn your vision into a new reality.

1.    Who has the power to really influence my innovation’s success or failure?

2.    How can I enliven the support of stakeholders who will benefit (for often even those who will win do not recognize your ideas merit)?

3.    How can I win over neutral stakeholders (those who will neither benefit nor lose too much)?

4.    How can I enroll or diminish the influence of those who will lose out by my innovation?

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