Pac-Man Innovation Lessons

Aidan McCullen
Jul 21, 2016 · 7 min read

Following on from last week’s Thursday Thought I said we would look at the protagonists of innovation in any company.

Having spoken to many senior innovation leads internationally, the protagonists are always a close variation of what is outlined below.

A great way to imagine the world of an innovator in any organisation is like the 4x4 maze of Pac-Man. Each element of Innovation implementation fits nicely into the following analogy.

This blog post is intended to support anyone who is working or consulting in innovation.

This blog post is more importantly aimed at CEOs, M.D.s and key decision makers to encourage you to reassess, reinforce and reward innovation.

A quick recap for those who may have forgotten the game. Pac-Man is an arcade game developed by Namco and first released in Japan in 1980.

The object of the game is to move the small yellow blob (Pac-Man) around the maze and eat up all the white dots called pac-dots. When he does this he advances to the next level.

Pac-Man has four enemies within the maze. If he touches these ghosts, Pac-Man loses one of his three lives.

Close to each corner of the maze are four power pellets that provide Pac-Man with the temporary invulnerability when he can eat the enemies.

When the temporarily blue enemies flash white that signals that they are just about to become dangerous again. The length of Pac-Mans mans invulnerability varies depending on the level of difficulty.

Finally, sometimes pieces of fruit pop up on the screen and these are packed full of extra point, when Pac-Man gets 10,000 points he gets another life.

So what does all this have to do with innovation?

The Grid

The grid on which you are playing represents any organisation or environment in which the innovator operates. This is the bOS or business operating system we discussed in last week’s blog.

The bigger the grid, the bigger the challenge as this means there are more pac-dots to eat up in order to progress in your quest.

While the game does not reflect this, sometimes there are various-sized mini grids within the main grid and those are protected by Ghosts.

The Pac-Dots and the Power Pills

The pac-dots represent low-lying fruit, these are lower end tasks that the innovator (Pac-Man) can deliver. An innovation lead will usually deliver these as quickly as possible as they are driven to deliver bigger more meaningful projects.

The innovator wants to deliver real change, positive change, lasting change so she is driven to get the Power Pellets.

The Power Pills represent bigger projects, meaningful collaborations and cultural changes. These Pills are fiercely protected, by reaching these the innovator will be upsetting the apple cart. During her quest the innovator will be under constant threat from the enemies who want him to fail.

The Enemies

If you are in a change-making role of any type you are going to ruffle feathers. If you don’t you are not making enough change. That is not to say you look to ruffle feathers, it is the opposite. You look to bring as many people with you as possible.

However, some just do not welcome change nor do they welcome you.

“ If everyone is happy with you, then surely you have made many compromises in your life. If you are happy with everyone, surely you have ignored many faults of others.” Anon

The enemies of Pac-Man are known as “ghosts,” “goblins,” “demons,” “octopi” and “monsters”.

The game’s creator designed each enemy with its own distinct personality in order to prevent the game being too difficult. The red enemy chases Pac-Man, the pink and blue try to position themselves in front of Pac-Man’s mouth, while the orange enemy’s behaviour is random.

Just like the ghosts in Pac-Man, the innovator will meet distinct types of resistance.

There will be the passive aggressive, this one will agree with everything, but when it comes to the crunch not deliver anything, knowing that they are safe in the status quo.

Then there is the red pen ghost. In life there are black pen people who will originate ideas, highlighter people who will improve on the original ideas and red pen people who will find a reason why an idea won’t work, no matter how good the idea is.

Another ghost is the gate-keeper ghost. This is the one who has some power and can block the innovator. This blocking can be by denying funds or access to resources required to deliver a project or innovation.

Finally, there is the green ghost, this ghost is fearful that the innovator will succeed where they have failed. To ensure the innovator does not succeed they add obstacles where possible and hamper progress wherever they can.

In worst case scenarios the green ghost can be a senior manager. In this extreme case this ghost does not like to be shown up. This type of ghost does not like to surround themselves with excellence. The great Jeffrey J. Fox sums up this mindset.

Invulnerability and Support — How to enable the Innovator

When Pac-Man eats power pellets he earns invulnerability for a few seconds. During these key moments the ghosts cannot harm Pac-Man, in fact Pac-Man can eat the ghosts and roam free.

If you are a CEO and you are contemplating an innovation programme in your organisation this part is vitally important.

Your innovation leaders need to operate outside the current culture, rules and operating system of your organisation. This team needs to be disrupting your current models. To ensure the team are on track, they must be given parameters within which they can operate, these are what I call “leaky parameters”. They need to understand the company strategy and let that be their North Star and then let them get on with it.

If you do not foster this mindset within your organisation, someone will do it outside your organisation and then hire the best from within your organisation.

Senior leader sponsorship is essential for an innovation mindset to succeed. As a senior sponsor of innovation heed the wise words of Buckminster Fuller, one the worlds most advanced thinkers and featured on our Masters of Imagination podcast series here.

Trust is implicit in this pact between CEO and innovator. This comes down to the innovator having the right attitude and skills and the CEO or senior manager being a 10 and not a 7.

Let’s now look at the innovator mindset and values.

Pac-Man Skills

Being the one who challenges the status quo and goes against the grain can be a struggle. This next section is for innovators and pioneers in any business at any level. The challenges are always similar.

Be Unreasonable

It is said a leader is always trying to improve their surroundings, which includes people, processes and culture. To do this an innovator must remain steadfast to their principles and display integrity above all. You are there to disrupt, to question and to challenge, that is how positive change happens.

Prepare to be Misunderstood

You need to be willing to withstand the scepticism, ridicule and scorn of others to change things. You need to commit to ideas despite the challenge of others. This is why you need senior sponsorship. You need this in order to succeed and you need this as pioneering can be a lonely place without support.

For leaders and the senior sponsors of innovation this is where the power-ups — those pieces of fruit that appear during Pac-Man — are relevant. You need to reward the early adopters for their risk taking. They need to know these new behaviours are positively recognised, reinforced and rewarded.

Be Brave and Remain True to Yourself

The most important thing for the innovator is not to conform. You are there to be different, so embrace that. There will be “ghosts” trying to change you, but you must never change.

Continue to Dream Big

We should tell not only children this everyday, we should foster this mindset in business. Human beings have created amazing things, think how many of these came to innovators in dreams.

For the Pac-Man Innovator this is essential. Pac-Man will lose some battles, he may die on the battlefield (grid), but that is only a lost battle, the war rages on.

To innovators, change-makers, culture developers, CEO’s and leaders, good luck to you and heed the words of Eric Schmidt.

On this weeks innovation show we talk to the following change-makers and feather rufflers:

Vincent McCarthy CEO and co-founder of the Festival of Curiosity.

Dr. Ralph Griffith, Founder and Director of Innov828 Business Incubator and Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Iseult Ward, CEO and co-founder of the Foodcloud.

You can subscribe here.

Thanks for reading please like this below so others can see it.

You can also play Pac-Man here http://www.methodshop.com/games/play/pacman/index.shtml

The Thursday Thought

Droplets from my stream of consciousness shared every Thursday.

Aidan McCullen

Written by

The Thursday Thought

Droplets from my stream of consciousness shared every Thursday.

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