Framing John DeLorean
I just finished watching Framing John DeLorean, “the first documentary re-enactment true story of the man behind the car,” and am wowed by the connection between the challenging corporate climate of General Motors depicted in the film and the many corporations we assist today with their innovation programs. Here are a few insights for corporate innovators looking to drive change within successful, established organizations.
Bend (Don’t Break) The Rules: The film traces DeLorean’s meteoric rise through the ranks of General Motors where he ushered in the muscle car era by launching the Pontiac GTO. Pontiac at the time was positioned to older consumers and wasn’t interested in putting “a tiger under the hood.” To get the car into production, DeLorean essentially hid the larger motor as an option rather than a new model, which enabled him to bypass sign off from corporate management.
Identify Tomorrow’s Consumers: The new Pontiac GTO immediately resonated with younger consumers who wanted their car to reflect their persona. DeLorean identified the need for personality in a car and that the new shoppers coming to market wanted something unique that helped them stand out from the crowd. He recognized the dynamic of combining thunder with safety.
Listen to Front-Line Employees: Much of the beginning of the film is about the friction of a visionary trying to operate within a “fat-cat” organization. The film makers position GM as navel gazing with an obsessively conservative focus on existing business, efficiencies, and not rocking the boat of a $30 billion operation. Smaller, fuel-efficient, and better made cars begin to come in from Europe and DeLorean wanted to bring this to the board and other executives. He is censored, literally having his criticism removed from a speech. Angered he leaks the original speech to the press, ending his relationship with GM. Though what is lost in the film, is that he identified a legitimate market threat that would plague GM for decades – yet, they didn’t want to disrupt the status quo.
Free Mindspace For Top Talent to Experiment: DeLorean played the part of the visionary maverick who can’t stand the slow-to-market and gradual approach. So he starts to bend the rules to make things happen. What if those rules were removed? Wouldn’t that have fueled his creativity rather than create this maverick-at-all-costs mentality which lead to his eventual demise? (It’s truly an amazing story involving drug deals, super models and Back To The Future). VentureFuel often takes the most renegade corporate executives and pairs them with startup founders, which leads to amazing collaborations, as well as results, for both parties.
Partner and Co-Create: What if the extremes of the “fat-cat” corporation and the maverick visionary could co-exist? The GM depicted in the film isn’t much different from many of the successful corporations and industries of today. They obsess about delivering for existing consumers, delivering tried-and-true results and not rocking the base. On the other side, you have the maverick who breaks all the rules, is reckless, scaling at all costs, profits be damned, burning through investors’ money (WeWork, etc.). Can these 2 extremes exist within the same walls?
What if General Motors had decided to seed invest in DeLorean Motor Company? Allow DMC to operate entirely independently but with a small stake in the company. Perhaps GM could have provided the cash needed or, more creatively, leveraged expertise, parts, time on the line, distributors, and retail locations to help DeLorean go from 0 to 1. This would have given DeLorean freedom to create, to try new things, and given GM front row access to the opportunity. DeLorean could have then spent his time building the car, rather than raising money (legitimate or drug infused) and likely would have enabled the car to be produced in Detroit rather than war-torn Belfast. The GM infrastructure and scale could have assisted with some of the deliverables that plagued DeLorean and its innovation could have continued outside of the machine of GM.
We all love the maverick story. The renegade who goes off on his/her own, risks it all to chase their dreams, and willing to fight off any adversity. Similarly, we all love to hate large, profitable companies who are only focused on profits. The opportunity in marrying these two players sands the rough edges of each. The maverick jolts innovation into the “fat-cat” organization which inspires investors, employees and customers. The “fat-cat” leverages quality control, finances and scale to enable the maverick to deliver their vision faster and better. I think today DeLorean would have gone to Silicon Valley and raised a unicorn-round (which often is no better than dealing with drug dealers) and probably achieved enough scale to become an interesting player. But perhaps, his best path would have been what we advise, a creative partnership between maverick entrepreneur and establish corporate partner to build a meaningful, successful, profitable company that drives growth for all involved.