What Your Team Can Learn About Innovation from The Simpsons
Creating the longest-running primetime animated TV series -- in which it takes nine months to produce an episode -- is more like IT management than you might think.
By Esther Schindler
Probably the only technical qualification to put Joel Cohen, a writer and associate producer of The Simpsons, in front of the keynote crowd at the Red Hat Summit in June was that Red Hat Enterprise 5 was used to render some of the animation in The Simpsons movie. But Cohen had surprisingly deep—and quite entertaining—advice about innovation and the creative process to offer the conference attendees.
Managing and encouraging creativity is a large part of Cohen’s job. There are more than 400 Simpsons episodes to date, and Cohen and his team need to keep the storylines fresh. During his keynote address, he used Simpsons’ video clips to illustrate his points—a far more fun set of examples than one ordinarily sees in conference presentations—and shared tips that can apply to any business. (Clips of Ralph Wiggum or PowerPoint slides filled with pie charts? We’ll take Ralph any day.)
For example, Cohen discussed how important the business environment is for generating a creative mindset. He explained that, from its earliest days, The Simpsons producers negotiated with the Fox TV network that the Fox brass wouldn’t send a constant barrage of executive “notes” to the writers, suggesting how to change a script. (The result of such notes is typically lots of last-minute script changes, and the cast doesn’t have time to prepare properly. Writers hate them even more than actors do.) Cohen attributes the show’s great success to the autonomy of the writing team. The only interference Fox has is through its censor, he said. “Right now, the censor thinks nothing going out is too offensive.”
Cohen also emphasized that innovation needs to be “relateable.” That is, the intended user has to have something familiar and understandable to be able to appreciate the difference offered by the improvement (like Homer’s ridiculous addiction to doughnuts). “Jokes are a pretty good template for innovation,” Cohen said. We laugh at the “twist”—the pleasant surprise—but jokes are only funny when we can relate to the lead-up, he added.
It’s also important to encourage a culture of brainstorming. If you want to gauge the group culture, see what happens when someone suggests a “bad idea,” Cohen said Members of productive teams “see the negative potential” of the bad idea and add to the suggestion, helping to turn it into something better. Then, Cohen said, the team can be aware that it can achieve more as a group than as a bunch of individuals.
In addition, Cohen advised attendees to maximize the diversity of their groups with all kinds of people who have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. For example, he noted that there is a 30-year disparity in ages on his team. One of The Simpsons’ writers is a chemist; another went to Harvard. “I went to the University of Alberta. It wasn’t even the Harvard of Alberta,” quipped Cohen. His own background is in marketing.
Developing innovative ideas requires that team members understand the importance of context. “Not every great idea is the right great idea,” Cohen said, citing a funny scene that was cut—even after being animated—because it just didn’t belong in the story.
Another pitfall is the natural instinct to test things—to the detriment of the creative spark—which is often called “analysis paralysis.” Hollywood tests about 80 pilots every year, Cohen said, most of which are “edgy.” But then, they overtest the pilot episodes, trying to keep from offending anyone or taking too many risks, and “cutting the edges off” in the process. The result? Boring TV shows, he said.
Ideas have to be based on their value, not who originated the idea. “Take your ego out of the job,” Cohen said.
Lastly, Cohen told the audience that they shouldn’t ever expect to be done. Innovation never ends, he said, and it’s an iterative process. It takes nine months to create an episode of The Simpsons, including tightening, cutting and fixing the script, Cohen said. He tells the writers, “If 5 percent of the original content makes it onto the screen, you should feel proud.”
That’s not to say that Cohen’s job is exactly like yours and mine. There are quite a few perks. For instance, few of us see our creations become cultural icons. A couple of years ago, he said, the BBC held an online poll to identify the “Greatest American.” Homer Simpson won—followed by Abraham Lincoln. “Doh!”
Also, Cohen once got to whisper Hebrew into Mr. T‘s ear, so that the latter could pronounce his lines correctly. “If you ever get a chance to whisper into Mr. T’s ear,” Cohen said, “I highly recommend it.”