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Jack the Pumpkin King on Workplace Innovation

By Sander Biehn | Nov 1, 2013

In “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Tim Burton’s stop-motion film classic, Jack, the Pumpkin King grows bored with being the ruler of just one holiday.  After another successful Halloween, Jack confides in song that  he is bored with Halloween, and feels “there must be something more.” Suddenly Jack stumbles upon portals to other holiday worlds and becomes enamored with Christmas. He kidnaps Santa and decides to give it a go in his place. Jack is a total failure in Santa’s stead, and winds up being shot down by the military after handing out ghoulish gifts to girls and boys.

I watched with some interest as Jack tried to innovate and do something totally new. As the top dog in Halloween land he is confident he can take on Christmas and easily convinces his Halloween friends to follow his dream. Everyone does what they can, but through the lens of what they know.  Jack tries to tell them that Christmas gifts need to pleasant, but the factory floor is just not able to deliver. Consequently, the venture fails.

How often have we seen this? A software provider tries to become a service company, or a service company decides to become a manufacturer. Tremendous failure can  sometimes ensue. In hindsight, the whole idea seems foolish.

But the real question is what happens after the failure. For Jack, who lands in a cemetery after being shot down,  he acknowledges his mistake and brushes off the whole disaster.  It is then that something magical happens. He suddenly comes alive with a host of new ideas on how to make the next Halloween better than ever. He no longer feels bored with what he is doing, he is reinvigorated and ready to pour all his creativity into his previous venture.

The first lesson is to allow ourselves to innovate broadly, but within reason. It was a stretch to believe that the Pumpkin King could fill Santa’s boots, but was it really so crazy to believe the Halloween factory could retool to make Christmas gifts? It didn’t work out well, but the broad thinking released creativity from the team and allowed everyone to feel renewed afterward.

The next lesson is to learn profoundly from our failures. In business there is an old adage to ‘stick around until the magic happens’, but once you have been shot down from a great distance it is more prudent to think broadly again and determine what  you can salvage from the failure. Often that will mean a hard change of direction.

Along the same line of thinking, failures are rarely total failures. The creativity that is released during any innovation can likely find a home elsewhere if the venture fails. Beautiful marketing materials can be repurposed, and key hires made in the process of building the new venture are still valuable. Ventures do not fail because every last thing about them was wrong, they fail because something fundamental was not right. Taking good parts of a failed venture to build a new, successful business is innovation at its best.

Finally, a major failure can  dishearten innovators and make them gun shy of suggesting another big new idea. There is no way around this. I think we need to follow Jack’s lead, though. Continuous innovation will not always yield positive results, but how are we to know if we can do something without trying? Without being bold and going after big dreams, how are we to know where our limits lie? Once we find our limits, looking back on what is within reach is much easier to do. We learn from our failures to understand how to make  that which we do well the best we can possibly make it.

Without failure we may never know what is possible.

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