Kevin Bacon, Footloose, and Innovation

Setting the Stage

Footloose is more than a film about dancing. Well, it’s a little about dancing, but mostly an American cinematic masterpiece about the effect of new ideas on small-town routine and culture.

Let’s revisit the wholesome tale:

A young, wild-at-heart, dance-happy Kevin Bacon relocates to “the smallest town in the mid-west,” Bomont, Oklahoma, only to discover that his favorite hobby is illegal! Kevin fights to change the law that forbids its citizens from dancing. Kevin Bacon challenges the behavior and the cultural paradigm of this small town with tractor fights, barn dances, and most importantly, GROWTH! My succinct and perfect recap of Footloose reflects how most organizations approach innovation, specifically my experience developing the innovation framework for a large aerospace company.

After getting my physics degree I joined a large aerospace company as an electrical engineer. I wanted to see science done BIG. I wanted to see ridiculous sums of money thrown at problems and help find equally ridiculous solutions. I wanted to be part of a corporate science blunder that opened up a portal to the upside down. I wanted to do something meaningful.

Yet this BIG science factory, was now the company that openly committed to “No more moon shots”, no more BIG. It had become Bomont. I asked myself…

“What the f*** is this? “ — younger me.

But, as it happens in all good stories there turned out to be a group of other smart and talented individuals that were asking the same thing. This good looking suave group of Baconites knew the importance of innovation. We understood that bread and butter are wonderful but they’re not growth. Growth comes from creating new value for customers and the company. Growth comes from finding out customers want jelly and a biscuit and that you have strawberries and cake flour in your cupboard. It’s in finding opportunity within that middle space that’s incredibly difficult. We were Kevin Bacon and we were going to teach ourselves and this place how to dance.

Where our story begins

Within the town of Bomont there are a certain set of behaviors and beliefs.

  • They’re a town closed off to new ideas
  • They’re wary of newcomers
  • They get angry and scared when Kevin Bacon starts to shake things up.

This is their culture. We can see how quickly a town like that would fade away. Innovation is fundamentally a cultural issue. Innovation, by definition, is creating something new. New things are provocative. Provocation is Kevin Bacon.

An organization is no different. It it’s afraid of new ideas, if it’s unable to process failure, if it’s closed off to changing customer needs, or if it’s not willing to DANCE… then it will also fade away.

Kicking our shoes off and mixing metaphors

Much like in the masterpiece Footloose we found that our company had a strong singular cultural driver coming from the top. We were, and rightly so, focused on satisfying our previous customer commitments. However, this singular focus made us like Bomont, monotonous and slow to change.

If you’ve never seen the movie the town’s leaders ban dancing and Kevin Bacon is the instigator that helps change the town, but he’s not alone. He has a group of friends that also want to dance. My team, like Kevin Bacon and his friends, started tackling this problem by building a cohort of believers in innovation. We engaged all manner of personnel from new hire to CEO. With our groundswell we created a way for employees to share ideas and stakeholders to share problems.

After that we taught ourselves and our impressionable teen friends how to innovate. We showed them what it meant to be entrepreneurial within an organization. We showed them how to find customers, find out if they wanted, and execute.

We gave them back the right to dance and then we showed them how.

Ultimately we saved millions of dollars annually, we helped the company explore new technologies and services, we consulted teams on how to bring our methods into their work, we gave people the freedom to be creative, and we won at tractor chicken, I mean, got buy-in from executives. Our team proved that we could create real value to the organization with our methodology but monotony is the reverend, he’s going to be making sure no one is having fun.

We had established and proven a framework. We had helped the company but unlike Footloose we were unable to change the culture. It should be no surprise though. Despite our connections to leaders and employees, despite our wins and cost savings, despite everything we still had an organization’s culture to change. In Footloose the town is small and their emotional zenith is burning books! Imagine how much effort it takes to change a large company. But Kevin Bacon and his crew win in the end. We still haven’t found a resolution but we haven’t gotten to the credits yet either. The story is still rolling.

Getting the girl…

Kevin Bacon knew what he had to do. He had to show Bomont that dance was good. He had to build a group that believed with him, he had to change the culture.

Culture is everything.

Consider this when implementing any kind of innovation framework and teaching your organization to dance.

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