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"Game of Thrones" Shows Us What the Difference is Between Successful and Unsuccessful Innovation

May 17, 2019 10:15:40 AM EDT


Since it's debut in 2011, HBO's Game of Thrones adapted from George R.R. Martin's seminal fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire has dominated culture, captivating audiences and bringing new converts to the modern fantasy genre.

Part of GoT's appeal has always been its willingness to buck storytelling trends, to kill the characters audiences are conditioned to see as heroes, to satiate the desire for upheavals in what we expect from stories about kings, and magic, and the like.

Recently, however, enthusiasm for the show's subversions has lessened in some corners of the fandom. The latest episodes in the show's last season have frustrated these fans with twists that they feel are unmotivated, mean-spirited, or silly. 

Now, your mileage on this final season might vary, as mine has. Still, even if you don't share the outright disappointment of some fans, the contrast in the show's execution, and the subsequent contrast in its reception hints at something worth interrogating--not just about dragons and iron chairs, but about how innovation works, and how it is best deployed.

General Spoilers Ahead for Season 8 of GoT

How Do Innovators Successfully "Break the Wheel"

In one of the best reviewed episode's of GoT's fifth season, contender for the Iron Throne Daenerys explains that she's "not going to stop the wheel. [She's] going to break the wheel." Of course, as viewers of the last episode are aware, the Mother of Dragons goes much further than breaking the wheel (opting for a more mass-murder approach), but it's that initial sentiment that I want to hone in on.

I trust that none of our readers' plans for innovation entail the brutal sack of a city.


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This radical vision of innovation--more commonly understood as disruption--has invigorated many a start-up--inspiring them to demolish the current perception of their industry and craft a solution that entirely transforms the way in which their industry functions.

This vision has much to recommend it; and, when properly deployed, it empowers innovators to build revolutionary solutions--Customer Data Platforms, AI-powered applications, ride-sharing technology.

But for these solutions to succeed, they can't just aim to disrupt for the sake of disruption. They must have purpose--a considered sense of needs that are not being met, holes not being filled, wants not being addressed.

Those first few lauded seasons of Game of Thrones actually provide insight into how to do this properly. In adapting Martin's books, HBO sought to provide an alternative to the comfortable, but increasingly rote narratives that audiences were familiar with. While these met baseline needs, they neither surprised nor challenged.

They forced audiences to settle for the same solution time and time again.

GoT on the other hand decided to think out of the box.


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It provided something that wasn't just new, but something newly satisfying.

Innovation Can't Just Promote the New for Newness' Sake

Compare that to these most recent episodes, which seem to kill characters, dismantle plot arcs, and deploy spectacles that feel less rooted in story logic and more in the need to grab attention, however ill-earned it might be. 

Innovators who fail often do so because they mistake novelty for innovation, or sheer disruption for honest revolution. They craft solutions or strategies that don't actually meet unmet needs, but simply throw a wrench in the current system.

The innovations that truly thrive--that actually disrupt--are those that are based on thought out, adaptive ideas.

You can't simply decide that your solution will be the hip new thing if that solution's only values are being hip and new.

Innovation Requires Foresight

Ditching these Game of Thrones metaphors, the ultimate point is that innovation isn't simply about turning an industry on its head. It's about overturning what is because you know that beneath what is, there's something essential that can be.

When they're looking to make their mark, innovators must take the time to discover what it is that the current state of the industry isn't addressing, what desires and complaints aren't being heard.

Successful innovators attain their success not simply through their resources, but through their ability to read the mood of their landscape, and to build better ways to connect with customers on the levels that those customers want.

Since its beginning Game of Thrones has presented the stories of numerous characters who want to change the world--some who seem to be succeeding, and some...well, not so much (to put it lightly).


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To innovate requires insight, planning, and vision both radical and considered. Those who charge ahead hoping to simply throw everything they have against the wall, hoping something sticks, are uniformly less successful than those whose solutions are the result of a robust understanding of what's missing, and what needs to be changed.

You can't just break the wheel for the sake of breaking the wheel. You have to break the wheel because you know that there's a better solution beyond it.


Michael Darer
Written by Michael Darer

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