Tony Stark, Core Competencies, and Successful Innovation

Some people think I’m a bad singer. The opinion of those people has not been enough to keep me from humming/mumbling/unabashedly belting out “I. AM. IRONMAN.” at any given opportunity since I stepped out of a darkened theater earlier in May.

If you haven’t yet participated in the spectacle of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, be aware that there are spoilers ahead and also: go. It’s good. If you’re still with me, let’s consider the journey that Stark makes to move away from Stark Industry’s core competency (weapons creation, manufacturing and distribution and general baddie-dodo stuff) to a new business ‘model’ after he is shown where the money that funds the business is really coming from.

Working from passion rather than plan, Stark supplies no financial justification for this move, much to the chagrin of his business partner, The Dude. Surprisingly, the Dude does not abide. Why am I discussing this on the BNC blog, you might ask? In the wake of the IDPF and BISG conferences this past month, theories on how innovation doesn’t need to depend on certainty of results are rolling along and this modern-day Ironman suggests another layer. The success of innovation, whether it be armor made of metallic substances or database manipulation, might not need to be creating the right solution if and only if it is solving the right problem.

On this model, the success of any particular tactic is less important than successful recognition of the problem that needs to be solved. Stark took a couple of tries to get his suit right (and he had the advantage of Optimus Prime’s Matrix v2.0 embedded in his chest!) and so might we all. Using the fantastic distinction between experimentation (trying something with no idea how it will turn out) and innovation (using new techniques to accomplish an established objective) made by Mike Shatzkin and Michael Healy in setting up this year’s Making Information Pay, innovation depends more on knowing the past (as in the problem you are solving) than foreseeing the future (as in exactly what mix of tactics will work and how).

Oh, and alsoI. AM. IRONMAN.