Innovation, Tempered Radicalism, and Breakfast at Tiffany's

What do Innovation, Tempered Radicalism, and Breakfast at Tiffany's have in common? I just read a fascinating book called "Fifth Avenue, 5am", by Sam Wasson. It's about the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I picked it up while on vacation expecting a fairly light, easy vacation read.  What I found was a book that describes many of the same organizational challenges experienced by companies trying to innovate, but written in a much more engaging way than most business books.

The organizational story starts with Marty Jurow and Richard Shepard, two producers looking to make a great movie, not unlike entrepreneurs looking to start a new business.  They ran across the script and against the judgment of others decided that hidden beneath the surface, it had the makings of a good, romantic comedy.

However, the story romanticized the life of a call-girl.  In the Hollywood of the 1950’s, this just wasn’t done.  In order to make the movie, there would need to be serious work to make the story palatable within that environment.  There were strict regulatory boards, serious politics over talent selection, and too few resources to work with.  Getting all the requisite approvals for a movie that was far from the “standard Hollywood formula” would be nearly impossible.  Starting to sound familiar?

The book goes on to tell the story of how Jurow and Shepard navigated the environment. Whether it was intentional or not, the creators of the movie followed a lot of the advice given to large corporations about how to enable innovation to occur within their companies.  Here are a few:

They recognized the initial insight illuminated by the original book, written by Truman Capote.  The main character tapped into a nascent shift in the zeitgeist.  The world was changing, and the book was a harbinger of what was coming.  This is not unlike finding an unmet need in the market.

They took advantage of timing.  At the time, the current Hollywood formula was at risk of being disrupted by the mass adoption of TV.  They were able to use this to their advantage when dealing with the regulatory groups to loosen the grip on what was deemed appropriate subject matter in the movies. How often does it take the threat of death of the establishment before meaningful changes can be made?

They took risks to hire the right talent.  In some cases, it involved allowing the screenwriter who was selected “politically” to write parts of the script and fail.  That gave them the freedom to choose the person who did not have the experience, but did have the capability to do the job they needed. How often are people hired in large companies based on how well they did existing roles, and those skills may not be relevant in the new role?

They also understood the importance of casting a “girl next-door” like Audrey Hepburn in the lead role.   Her reputation and past roles enabled the audience to accept her as a fundamentally “good girl”, and her quirky nature enabled her to be credible as a character living a very non-traditional lifestyle.  This is not unlike the ideas in Maureen Scully and Debra Myerson’s article “Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change”.   From the article’s abstract; “Tempered Radicals” are individuals who identify with and are committed to their organizations, and are also committed to a cause, community, or ideology that is fundamentally different from, and possibly at odds with the dominant culture of their organization”.  Casting Audrey Hepburn enabled the movie to fit into both worlds.

In my personal opinion, the ability to find such Tempered Radicals is key for any organization looking to do something different in a traditional environment.   Jurow and Shepard may not have done this consciously, but if you read the book closely, their ability to hire people who could “walk on both sides of the fence” was key to the ultimate success of the movie. 

As we all know, the movie was a great success, and the book illuminates many issues that business books try to dissect.  What makes this book useful as a business book is that it focuses on all the irrational behaviors that exist in human nature, and their impact on the end-product.  Most business books focus on the rational aspects of organizational issues.  But let’s face it, organizations are collections of humans, and as long as that’s true, books like Wasson’s will impart many lessons to those willing to acknowledge human nature.