Innovation, Inspired by ‘The Princess Bride’

The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen the 1987 flick countless times over the years and can almost recite it line for line. I caught it again on TV recently, and it struck me in a whole new way: The movie really is a metaphor for innovation.

If you are one of the 10 people on the planet who hasn’t seen it, the film is a sweet story about Wesley, a farm boy turned benevolent pirate, who faces all sorts of setbacks in his quest to find his true love, Princess Buttercup, and save her from marrying an evil prince. Along the way, he befriends Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, who are motivated to help because of their own agendas.

When I watch the movie through the lens of a business consultant, I see clearly how the path to innovation is like the journey to find Buttercup. Let’s say the princess is innovation and Wesley is a guy in a corporate job, trying to get his idea through layers of managers and obstacles. Much like his movie counterpart, Corporate Wesley solves one problem only to find another. The challenges sap his strength — sometimes he feels like he’s not going to make it through — yet he must persevere if he wants to reach his goal.

Do you see it yet? Let me go a little deeper with the metaphor.

In the movie, Wesley has to face insurmountable odds. Because he starts out as a poor farm boy, he knows he needs to make something of himself before he can ask for Buttercup’s hand in marriage. He finds a pirate mentor, learns the ropes and acquires a number of advanced skills, including sword-fighting and building up a tolerance to a poisonous powder. This is where Corporate Wesley would learn everything he needs to know about his business and put together an action plan for his idea. He learns how to take criticism constructively and sidestep those who just want to throw him under a bus.

But Movie Wesley knows he can’t conquer a kingdom alone. That’s where Fessick and Inigo come in. They have a rocky start, but Wesley soon wins them over and the three are in a mutually beneficial relationship. Again, Corporate Wesley is seeking out partners who can augment his skills, and coworkers and managers who will support his innovative idea. (See my previous blog on “Finding Your Office Lebron James.”)

In the movie, like in life, everything that can go wrong does. Wesley is captured and tortured by the prince, but his buddies Fessick and Inigo pull him and keep him going. He’s running out of time before Buttercup is forced to marry the prince, but he pushes through and finds a loophole in the rules. He is faced with an angry mob that bars entry to the castle, but he devises a way to outsmart them and get to the inner sanctum. He has to lead her through a fireswamp where unpredictable dangers lurk, but he figures out a pattern that reduces the risk. By now, Corporate Wesley has encountered so many naysayers and eye-rollers that he wonders if he should give up. He’s been given impossible deadlines, had his budget slashed and been told that it’s just not the right time for change. But our hero keeps working on his campaign to win the hearts and minds of the C-suite.

In the end, it was hard work and steadfastness that helped Movie Wesley rescue his Princess Bride. But something bigger happened along the way. His bravery, and that of his cohorts, freed the land from the tyranny of the evil prince. In other words, the actions of a handful of people positively changed the environment for everyone around them. They began to frame the future in a different way. That’s exactly what can happen when innovation flourishes in the workplace.

You may think it’s silly to compare the struggles of delivering innovation to a movie plot from nearly 30 years ago, but I see “The Princess Bride” as allegorical. And I’m a firm believer in taking inspiration wherever you can find it. So, the next time you’re stuck in an innovation rut or frustrated at the huge corporate structure that only seems to work against you, grab some popcorn, hit up your favorite streaming service and watch this old favorite again with new eyes. You just might be inspired, too.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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