What Every CEO Can Learn From The Olympics’ Wacky Opening Ceremony

Anyone who's seen the way bureaucracy eviscerates originality, seeks comfort in consensus, and hides from the most benign level of risk-taking has to marvel at the miracle of intact survival that was Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies. It should be required watching for every CEO.

On Friday, over a billion people tuned into something that was unmistakably true to its original vision.

Whether you loved, hated, or were just bewildered by Danny Boyle’s stunningly individualistic, unexpected, and unpredictable spectacle, you can’t say that it was created by a committee in a brainstorming session which was iteratively refined by a series of working groups, then socialized until internal agreement was achieved.

In the New York Times, Sarah Lyall declared it “hilariously quirky,” a “wild jumble;” “noisy, busy, witty, {and} dizzying;” and “sometimes slightly insane.”

In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins lauded it as “extraordinarily bonkers.” That’s for sure. Watching it, I was stunned that a production as rule-breaking was able to retain its spiky freshness, high-low cultural divagations, and riotous sense of humor throughout the bureaucratic grind-down of not just one, but two different U.K. governments. And God knows how many “review sessions.”

Anyone who has seen the way bureaucracy--in government, in the fearful corridors of corporate America--eviscerates originality, seeks comfort in consensus, and hides behind the fear of even the most benign level of risk-taking to quash even the most tepid examples of boldness--has to marvel at the miracle of intact survival that Danny Boyle’s conjuration represents.

After all, when the stakes are high--and for the U.K. and its Olympic team, nothing could have been more anxiety-producing than the opening ceremony--the hegemony of caution is usually inevitable. Gambling--and this was a huge gamble--tucks its head into its shell; courage withdraws into its own form of Seinfeldian shrinkage.

That’s why I say that every CEO in America needs to watch those few minutes and ask: would I have ever approved something like that if the Olympics were my company?

Would I have approved a cultural mash-up that included the Sex Pistols, the Queen doing James Bond shtick, and Mr. Bean showing up with the London Symphony Orchestra and playing a single note in “Chariots of Fire (the most Tweeted moment.)

Or would I have ended the career of someone who had the audacity to present me with, as Lyall put it: ”…the seminal Partridge Family reference from Four Weddings and a Funeral, a group of people dressed like so many members of Sgt. Pepper’s band, some rustic hovels tended by rustic peasants...and, in a paean to the National Health Service, a zany bunch of dancing nurses and bouncing sick children on huge hospital beds.”

We all know the answer. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, with its riotous opportunities for people to be confused or to take offense, would have had zero chance to make it out alive.

And that is why, with a few dazzling exceptions (and it’s become boring to keep referencing Apple, so I won’t) American corporations aren’t just afraid of their own shadows, they are even afraid of the thought of casting one. It’s not that smart people aren’t running these companies; I’ve always said that smart people can kill a terrific but vulnerable idea faster than anyone, because they have the analytical ability to create a firing line of objections to anything new and hence dangerous.

Today there is no organizational framework for guts, and no will to create one. The crunch of bone, the industrial-strength sandpapering, that goes on every day in corporate America is audible and palpable. After all, the structure of the large American corporations--layers of decision-making, PowerPoint analyses, and then the final nail in the coffin, the “validation” of consumer research--assures the survival of the flaccidest. What would a focus group have made of Kenneth Branagh playing Caliban dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an English civil engineer who helped create Britain’s industrial infrastructure?

We need leadership at the top that creates cultures where internal Danny Boyles can do their thing, get recognized and succeed. And I’m not just talking about areas where creativity naturally should flourish, like marketing and R&D. But everywhere. Our resistance to the untried knows no corporate boundaries.

That’s why I address this piece to CEOs. They are the only ones who can break the back of the cycle of fear and establish that intolerance for mediocrity is the new normative corporate behavior. They are the only ones who can protect the fragility of the unexpected.

We’ve become dangerously accepting of boredom. Recently, I was doing some research about innovation in the food business, and discovered that the finalists in the SOFI Awards, which stands for “Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation” in the $75 billion specialty food industry, included such standouts as Gluten-Free Yellow Cake Mix and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. This is true.

I’m not just being rhetorical, by the way. I do believe that if every CEO was forced to watch a few minutes of that Danny Boyle event before their next big meeting, it might liberate them (a bit) from their comfort zones. It would be an interesting and worthwhile experiment. Not long ago, research found that exposure to the Apple logo stimulated the brain to be more creative. Perhaps the Opening Ceremony can also open some minds.

[Image: Flickr user Republic of Korea]

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6 Comments

  • Denise Northcote

    Danny Boyle encapsulated everything I have ever felt or thought for a number of years right there. For me (a loyal supporter of everything public sector) this was as good as hearing Sex Pistols or Joy Division for the very first time. "Be assed" with reading any more stories about "legacy" from the Olympics; we had "it" anyway and always will as long as people "keep the faith".

  • Ara ohanian

    Adam,
    absolutely! Creative risk taking underpinned the Olympics opening ceremony and
    made it an unlikely, spectacular success but there was something else there
    which many commentators have missed: detail. Boyle’s ability to create a grand
    swift through history was only possible because of a clearly fanatical
    attention to detail. One example: when Tim Berners-Lee was revealed during the
    hi-tech part of the ceremony he used a NeXT computer to send his tweet “This is
    for everyone”. Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer at CERN and it became the world
    first web server. This moment would only have been recognized by a minority of
    the audience but it was one of hundreds such incidents in the ceremony. Real
    creativity works because it resonates with people. My suggestions to my fellow
    CEOs: never forget what your company really does. Get out of the spreadsheets
    and presentations and dwell on the people and the products of your
    organization. That will not only stimulate your creativity, it will fill it
    with authenticity. There’s a little bit of Danny Boyle in all of us.

  • James Spinosa

    First thing that comes to mind is the way Old Spice re-invented itself with the "Manly Man" ads. "Different" rarely survives but when it does it makes an impact.

  • Urbandoor1501

    Great Reading! Thanks...I agree. I have round table discussions when people mess with your visions.