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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Innovate Like a Movie Director

Why not get creative on an epic scale?

Published: Monday, July 11, 2011 - 09:50

I love films. I just love that cinematic experience. It’s the best experience you can have in a darkened room when someone has spent $200 million on two hours of entertainment. I often truly can’t believe how creative and brilliant some minds are. Do you remember the last movie you saw and walked away from, lost for words to describe it? The last time I had a wide-eyed and excited feeling after a movie was from watching the British director Christopher Nolan’s 2010 epic, Inception.

If you haven't yet seen it, I would strongly suggest that you consider making it an addition to your collection. The science fiction story is about a group of spies getting inside dreams to capture secrets. Doesn’t sound like the making of a classic plot, and it's perhaps not a movie for those, like my ever-patient wife, who like period-costume crime dramas.

There is one notable scene that has some jaw-dropping special effects, where a good spy has a fight with a baddie in a hallway. On its own, this doesn’t sound spectacular; however, the hallway at the time is spinning on its axis. Each agent is pitted against each other in mortal combat as the walls are turning to become the ceiling—and at some speed.

Being a problem-solver, I like to reflect on how this would or could be performed. During the last 25 years, computer graphics have been so influential in movie design, I presumed that was how Nolan created his vision for millions of the paying public to enjoy. So I felt resplendent with my assessment until recently, when I was proven wrong; it wasn’t a computer generated special effect at all. I learned of my mistake when I was traveling by air about a year after the movie had been released. I managed to catch a “making of” documentary of the very scene I just described. In the documentary Nolan started with his vision on paper, and presented this comic book description to his top set and special-effect designer. Put yourself (if not already) in a high-pressure position in a creative industry that is highly competitive, always trying to outdo the last brilliant vision no one has seen before, and being faced with this huge challenge of making a hotel corridor spin on its axis with two actors inside. I would have to assume that only a master innovator and problem-solver could successfully face this challenge.

The solution was presented on the tiny screen in front of me at 30,000 feet up: Build a 100-foot corridor, in a frame that is rotated through 360° by powerful motors. It was massively complex and a huge engineering challenge that resulted in an awesome experience for the audience.

This got me thinking, a bit tangentially, on Darwinian principles. Would this expert special-effects wizard have innovated were it not for the working environment he was in? In the same way animals adapt and survive in their ecosystems, had this movie production, or system, allowed this innovation to be created?

When I realized how wrong my presumption was, I had a greater sense of awe after understanding how they did it. I was happy with the notion that I was wrong, but I was disheartened to think that I or the people I work alongside do not innovate on the same scale as the movie industry.

Please don't get me wrong. I do work in an innovative business. However most of the time it is innovation from people working in a broken system. What I mean is that workers find ways to work around the system, with the intent of attempting to achieve a positive outcome for the customer.

For example, in my past experience, an operator fashioned a tool (of sorts) out of a brush handle and other items available in his area. He made this “tool” to assist in a difficult task he was responsible for carrying out on a frequent basis. When learning of this, the engineers became concerned because it wasn’t designed in accordance to some complex calculation that only engineers can comprehend. The manager was enraged because it was an unapproved technique. Only I was impressed with the ingenuity and drive of someone just wanting to do a quality job.

The issue is not with the operator or the tool but with the system that required time-consuming engineering, combined with a management organization that wouldn’t listen or enable improvements in the workplace. This would only stifle, rather than encourage, innovation.

As for the operator, his natural problem-solving abilities were recognized and enhanced through training. This was achieved only through changing the system. The operator has gone on to become an excellent leader, and I hope he encourages others to come up with simple and practical solutions as he did.

Chris Corbould, the special-effects supervisor on the Inception production, had this to say of Nolan: “He extracts every drop of creative juice out of you and throws it in the film.” Doesn’t that sound like a rewarding way to work? Why don’t you start behaving like a movie director and encourage a creative system where people are allowed to innovate freely on an epic scale?


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


Creativity and Innovation

I find Paul's story to be one of many, in like kind that may be told, I am sorry to say.  Often creative ideas and even people are rejected because there way of thinking and ideas, are often not understood.  The reasons for this rejection are well understood by professionals working in the serious problem solving and tools of invention.

A thought provocation:  Why is it we hear form leaders aand educators that innovation and creativity is our key to our future as a Nation, yet little is heard regarding means to raise our creative output?  How many institutes of education include courses in creative thinking.  How many U.S. Government Leaders speak on how we can raise the bar, elevate our level of inventive ideas and achieve break through solutions to problems, whether they be mechanical, electronic, social or governmental?

We as a nation of people, need to come to a call for education, study and effective practice in the field of invention.



Thanks Paul, excellent article, a great point you make and nice to see something from Blighty for a change. I like your take on innovation because you reflect one of my current pet hates, the Solutions First Syndrome (SFS). True innovation only occurs when a solution aligns with a problem as indeed you illustrate both for the worker with his broom stick and the movie director with his huge budget. Many organisations miss this linkage in their so-called "innovation" programmes and suffer from “SFS” that wastes resources and usually makes things worse. Dr Deming talked about the folly of tampering which amounts to the same thing of course. The old adage that "necessity is the mother of invention" seems as pertinent now as ever in establishing that without a clear definition of the problem "innovation" can't really exist.