The Innovation Engine

Are You a Walt Disney or a Roy Disney?


Perhaps no other country celebrates innovation the way America does.

This passion for inventions started early in our history. Did you know that George Washington signed the First U.S. Patent Grant on July 31, 1790, and the patent examiner was none other than Thomas Jefferson? (Thank you, Google (GOOG)!) In America, we're reminded of the life-changing power of inventiveness every day. Some of the greatest inventors of yesterday spawned the greatest brands of today. What do the names Chrysler, Coleman, Goodyear (GT), Campbell (CPB), Colt, and Edison mean to you? Cars, tents, tires, soup, guns, and the electric lightbulb, of course.

When you dig a little deeper, you start to notice an incredibly important aspect of inventiveness: For every yin, there must be a yang.

For example, the next time you are marveling at the wonders of Disney (DIS), make sure you remember Roy. While Walt was dreaming about his Magic Kingdom and making a mouse talk, his brother Roy was actually making sure that Walt's dreams would come true. Roy was the operational genius; a yin for Walt's yang.

Turns out, the best companies are a lot like Roy and Walt Disney. They are naturally good at creating new ideas and executing them brilliantly. All too often, we here at Maddock Douglas (and maybe at your firm, too) stop at the first part, and pat ourselves on the back for being innovative, even though we are aren't exactly sure what to do with a great idea.

At our firm, ideas come easy. In fact, we believe big, beautiful, million-dollar ideas are a dime a dozen. Want to see? Picture yourself sitting on a plane. Hmmm. Let's see. Airline ideas. Why don't airlines create a loyalty card? You'd pay for travel at the beginning of the year in exchange for some sort of special treatment or perks—say, no fees for checking luggage; free food and drinks (including alcohol), and access to their "president's club" lounges so you would have some place—other than the gate—to wait for your plane. Sure, you can pay à la carte for all these things, but it would be more convenient for you if the airline bundled it all together, and better for the airlines since they would get the money up front. Starbucks (SBUX) has created plenty of cash flow with this idea. Why not the airlines?

Here's another idea: Airlines should sell luggage engineered to fit perfectly into their planes. The airlines get new revenue and quicker boarding because bags are all fitting nicely into place. You get the picture.

For all of us who say ideas are easy, there are others who say executing is easy. These are the operational experts—the Roy Disneys if you will—who know how to drive the best ideas forward. The corporate equivalent of them would be the director of R&D and the COO. You don't think of them as product innovators, but once they have an idea they execute it—hopefully to perfection.

We find that companies, like people, are usually good at either creating ideas or executing ideas. The trick is to know which describes your company. If you or your company are about operational excellence, but desperate for big ideas, consider importing this kind of thinking via a business partner.

Want proof that we are on the right track? Venture capital companies are full of Roy Disneys, and they know it, so they don't waste time trying to think up new ideas. They know what they are good at and go do it. And here's a bold statement: We also believe that right now venture capitalists have a golden opportunity to revive the spirit of innovation in America. But we'll save that for the next article.

For now, ask yourself this. Is your company a Walt or a Roy? Figure it out and go find a yin for your yang.

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Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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