The Great Escape to Innovation Management

James Garner Hendley
James Garner as Hendley

An amusing way to analyze modern organizations is to compare them with famous movies. Searching for a way to explain how a new company is organized initially, I found the example of “The Great Escape”. In that movie, a group of soldiers (the most expert for escaping) are imprisoned in a POW camp. They have an objective, prison-breaking, and the proper staff to do it in an organized way. The work can be divided properly due to the different expertise of the prisoners, establishing a structured organization with people expert in digging, misleading the guards, or forging documents. The main character of the movie, interpreted by Steve McQueen, is out of this organization, he acts freely in order to escape; however, finally he is convinced by the managing staff to join the group acting as a provider of information about the surroundings of the POW camp. Although this character can seem the most romantic one, the real hero (the totally necessary role to get the objective) is not him, probably. There is another unstructured role more important to get the aim: the scrounger, played by James Garner. Nothing can work if there is no solution to the little problems of provisioning of certain material and devices. His activity is unplanned and nobody asks how he can solve those little inconveniences.

In an industrial company, there is a similar problem and a similar solution too. The productive activity is very structured, if we start an industrial company we will be able to define perfectly the activities required for production and we can prepare a plan and draw a lot of schematics about it. However the structured activity can fail if there is not a similar role to the scrounger. In an industrial organization this role is assumed by the Engineering Department. This department processes new requirements to adapt production and it solves incidences preparing solutions through the design and manufacture of new components or managing the acquisition from the external market.

As the organization makes larger, there is a need of larger Engineering Departments. An industrial company requires many Hendleys in order to get the results, and they can become very costly due to many engineers can be inactive for a long time, if there is not a lot of incidences. In order to take advantage of these idle resources there can be two solutions, turning Engineering into another business serving other companies, or using those resources for innovation as the resources for research and development.

Great industrial groups are following the former approach, their engineering requirements can be huge and from very different fields, the best way to make it profitable is turning engineering into another business division.

Where this finally happens is where innovation management arises as an important value. As any business division has its own structure and objectives, it is necessary to canalize the requirements of production to external companies (although it can belong to the same business group) in order to solve it. Of course, this can be done for the operation managers directly but the requirements of the own innovation and R & D will not be provided by a different business division with its own sale objectives. It is necessary an internal department that makes this work. Its activity is fully management as engineering and development will be outsourced.

As you could see, it is important to notice a very important fact: Any organization requires departments “out of the structure”. This is not only specific for innovation and engineering, and it is the basement of some functional activities of the organizations. Companies cannot fit the environment and they cannot solve unexpected situations if there are not people working out of the structure in order to cope with uncertainty. And as Hendley the scrounger, most times people working in this kind of activities should not be asked about the way they get their solutions. All people should be glad to give their butter in order that the forger has a camera and he can provide them with falsified German documents. In other words, for this kind of people the important variable usually is effectiveness instead of efficiency, although, of course, there is a limit for the resources they can apply in their own process.


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