Many successes are the result of happy accidents. I’ve come to be as respectful of that, as I am of clear vision. In fact, I think one important aspect of clear vision is setting up the possibility for a happy accident. Like any executive, I put a high value on analysis and strategic thinking. However, I’ve also seen over-thinking squeeze out innovation and grind down alternative points of view.
We often look to research to guide our decision. I’ve certainly found research to be a helpful tool, and we do a fair amount of it on both programming and marketing materials. I’ve seen it accurately identify a break-out show like ER for example, that many executives didn’t understand at first.
The fact is, if I had relied solely on research results, I would never have gone forward with some of the shows that I am most proud of and that marked some of my biggest successes. The Office was a horrifically testing pilot, even though a very small base of young people loved it. American fans of the British original were disappointed and the new audience thought Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, was mean spirited and the show depressing and boring. We tested Glee four times, all with the same negative result: it was a show that nobody liked. It didn’t fit neatly into any reference bucket: comedy, drama or musical. As a result, it seemed to be rejected. Therein lies the trap — when you poll people about what they want, they don’t know how to tell you they want or like things they can’t yet imagine.
Steve Jobs made products that people didn’t know they couldn’t live without. When Jim Cameron was making Avatar, few could have imagined that tall blue people was something the world wanted to see. Far more movies and television shows have failed for being bland than being bold.
Unfortunately when a bold bet fails it’s met with the question, “what were you thinking?” So more often than not, we stick to the formula. Yet I’ve rarely heard asked, “What were you thinking putting on a derivative, boring show that looked like everything else?” I don’t understand that. I think now, more than ever, the audience simply won’t indulge it.
Be bold. Give your audience something they didn't know they needed. That is something every creative type should aspire to.
You can find the transcript of the entire speech here.