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.

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:

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.


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.
stakeholder had reasons to support his vision and reasons to resist it.
Great innovators know how to elevate the former and alleviate the

don’t have space to walk through how Cameron skillfully untangled that
which was causing resistance in each stakeholder, but for illustrative
, 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 a
n 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.


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 t

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.
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.

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

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?
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.

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?


About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society