Monday, November 28, 2011

Film Directing Lessons in Innovation and Leadership

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I got way more out of this 20-minute HBR interview with film director Francis Ford Coppola than I thought I would. What lessons in innovation and leadership can be mined from the views of the man who brought us such classics as Patton, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now?

The things that you get fired for when you’re young are the exact same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old.

This comes about five minutes into the interview, and Coppola is speaking specifically about that opening scene in Patton when George C. Scott is talking to us “sons of bitches” in front of the American flag. The studio Coppola was working for then didn’t pick up his option after that, evidently not happy with that and other directorial decisions he had made. Forty years later, of course, it is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.

The lesson in innovation is, of course, to be aware that the things that are truly revolutionary and trailblazing are always more apparent in hindsight than they are in the views of a powerful status quo. That’s not a license to be flippant or reckless, but it is a caution not to be too reliant on the opinions of those who benefit from the established order. To be innovative is, by definition, to go against the grain, to do things that are not common and not always logical. It may be dangerous swimming upstream, but it’s the only way to differentiate yourself and what you’re trying to accomplish.

The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas can be. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas are.

This is practically Coppola’s next comment, and it’s wonderfully illustrative of where to find places where it’s less dangerous to swim upstream. Notice his phraseology. It sounds off-the-cuff in the interview, but I think it’s carefully chosen. The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas CAN BE. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas ARE. In other words, when there’s less money at stake, there is greater freedom to be bold and inventive. To take chances. To do things the established order may not approve of. When big money is involved, then there’s much more scrutiny, and decisions have to be made that preserve the investment that the order has made.

The parallel to innovation in any bureaucratic organization couldn’t be more clear. Start small. Start where few people are looking. And if you’re the boss, give the people who work for you more freedom to be inventive in their individual areas. Find the smallest areas of your budget and take your biggest chances there. Let them be the idea engine for the larger organization. What works on the small scale can be applied to larger areas, and then they’ll have the evidence of some success to support them.

Identify a one or two-word theme for every project you have, and use that theme to help you make the tough decisions.

This comes about 13 minutes in, and it speaks the most deeply to me. When the stakes are high and the way forward isn’t clear, Coppola always returns to the simple theme he has chosen for his project. For The Conversation, that theme was Privacy. For The Godfather, it was Succession. And every time he reached an impasse in production, he would return to that simple idea and it would give him a framework within which an intelligent decision could be made. It helps to break the deadlock, and it helps bring people together around a common goal.

Now, that’s what I call movie magic.


  1. Thank you, Eric, for taking the time to share your takeaways from the Coppola interview. I completely underscore the relationship of ideas to resources. I've long felt that the best ideas are scalable -- that they're not about the resources as much as they are about the mindset: think small, be small.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anne. I'm glad you appreciated my takeaways. I especially liked Copolla's perspective that big money actually limits the flow of ideas. Few people are willing to risk a lot on a new idea, I guess.