It’s been 38 years since Star Wars: A New Hope whisked the world into a galaxy far, far away.
Amid the hype, what can Star Wars: The Force Awakens teach business executives about strategy innovation? George Lucas famously reinvented the blockbuster business model with the original Star Wars. Over 30 years, Lucsafilm earned more from the licensing, sequel, and merchandising rights (which Fox had considered worthless) than the box office receipts. This September, CEO Bob Iger has done it again with a new innovation that came from an unlikely partnership.
Disney partnered with Sphero, a small robotics startup in Colorado, on a new BB-8 toy. A playful, high-tech robot for kids (and young-at-heart management consultants) controlled with an iPhone App. The real robot continues George Lucas’ legacy of expanding the motion picture business model to consumer products—going beyond action figures to real high-tech robots.
How the new product came to market demonstrates the power of well-executed innovation initiatives. In 2014, Disney announced the first 11 startups selected for its Disney accelerator program. The program offered the startups up to $120,000 in investment capital and 15 weeks access to top Disney executives for feedback and guidance. Most importantly, each company was assigned a dedicated mentor from among the Walt Disney Company’s executive management. Read about the launch of the Disney accelerator.
Leading Innovation by Example
Critical to the effort, chief executive Bob Iger served as a mentor himself. Leaders demonstrate an innovation mandate through their speaking and actions. Iger invested capital in the accelerator program, but he also invested his own personal time to demonstrate the mandate for innovation in the company.
Which company did the CEO mentor for 15 weeks? Sphero, the small robotics startup in Colorado, that would go on to design and manufacture the new BB-8 robot Disney released this month. By being a mentor himself, Iger not only demonstrated his commitment to innovation, he also unknowingly put himself in the perfect place to make a connection that would lead to a new blockbuster product.
When Iger met with Sphero’s executives and saw their first product, a rolling ball controlled by an iPhone, it reminded him of a top-secret drawing he had seen from another Disney division. The rolling ball looked like a drawing of BB-8, a new droid in the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What were the chances that one of the small group of people who knew the secrets of the project would just happen to be one of the first people to see Sphero’s new robot?
People often say that they are not creative, but creativity can emerge naturally when people who are not connected engage in new conversations. Connecting a little-known startup to one of the world’s largest companies enabled innovation. There were only a few people in the entire world who had seen drawings for the next Star Wars movie.
Innovation Produces Additional, Unexpected Value for the Core Business
The connection also produced side benefits for Disney’s core business, motion pictures. At D23, the annual Disney convention, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Australia . Abrams unveiled not just previews and photos of the new movie, but a live, working BB-8 who rolled around the stage. BB-8 was the hit of the show, generating PR and marketing across media.