By Yvonne Milosevic
Marvel movie fans, get ready to geek out because have we got a treat for you today. From Iron Man in 2008 to Spider-Man: Far from Home in 2019, Marvel’s 23 films have grossed more than $17 billion. Yup, that’s more than every other movie franchise in history. INSEAD professor Spencer Harrison took on the dream research project of analyzing the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to suss out the secrets to their success. Along the way, Harrison realized that almost any business could benefit from adopting some of Marvel’s signature strategies.
In this HBR Ideacast interview with Alison Beard, Harrison explains the data-driven analysis he and his co-authors used. He also pinpoints three fundamental principles that have contributed to Marvel’s global domination. We’ll hit you with the topline findings here. But if you have 27 minutes to spare, the full interview is chock-full of entertaining tidbits.
Principle #1: Select for experienced inexperience.
How it works in the Marvel Universe: Harrison has spent the last 15 years studying how organizations onboard employees. He calls Marvel’s counter-intuitive approach for hiring directors one of the most exciting findings of this research. Marvel doesn’t hire people who have experience directing blockbusters, he discovered. Instead, they look for people that have done a great job with smaller budgets and character-driven storylines.
The thinking, as Harrison explains, goes something like this. “They say, ‘if I brought this director into the Marvel universe, what could they do with our characters? How could they shake up our stories and kind of reinvigorate them and provide new energy and new life?’”
Rather than bringing in a new director expecting the person to be a clone of the one they had before, Marvel says Nah, you do you.
How it can work in your universe: Harrison says Marvel’s tactic is to in-board new talent. The idea is not to bring a new person into the organization and tell them how to think and act. Instead, they bring all their outside learning and experience and teach us how to do things differently, he explains.
Broadening the search for talent is the first step toward getting experienced inexperience into your organization. The trick is to find the knowledge that’s complementary to what already exists.
Harrison offers the example of consulting companies that have hired chess masters rather than people with an economics degree. They might not understand economics, but they know strategy and how to think several moves ahead of the game. That skillset is equally valuable, says Harrison, and allows us a different way of seeing what we’re doing.
Principle #2 leverage a stable core team.
How it works in the Marvel Universe: “To balance the new talent, voices, and ideas it brings into each movie, Marvel holds on to a small percentage of people from one to the next,” Harrison explains. “The stability they provide allows Marvel to build continuity across products and create an attractive community for fresh talent.”
Harrison also shares an example from outside the world of Marvel. Consider the team lineups of the top Spanish soccer clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barcelona enjoyed years of success by focusing on growing its younger players while incorporating new stars to complement the core group, he notes.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid paid big money to bring in so-called galácticos, or superstars. But this strategy backfired. The club struggled to reach the final stages of the Champions League. That is, until they switched to the “Barcelona strategy.” This, plus a stable management team lead by former player Zinedine Zidane, allowed Real Madrid to go on to win the Champions League three times in a row from 2016–2018.
How it can work in your universe: “Whenever you’re putting a group together, you’re expecting there to be kind of new ideas and diverse inputs from that group,” says Harrison. That’s when businesses need to start thinking more about the composition of the team.
For example, how many of these people have worked together successfully before? How many new people can you sprinkle in that will push those people and allow them to expand their thinking—not just rely on a formula that worked in the past?
“Organizations that preserve the core, revitalize the periphery, and understand relationship networks can enable renewal, dynamism, and flexibility,” Harrison says. “They can attract an influx of new ideas while enabling continuity by keeping the overall organizational structure almost intact.”
Principle #3 Challenge the formula.
How it works in the Marvel Universe: “Organizations are often loath to abandon what made a creative product successful,” Harrison notes. “But Marvel Studios’ directors all speak about a willingness to let go of the winning ingredients in prior MCU movies.”
The films can veer from humorous (Iron Man 2) to dark and sad (Thor). Some exhibit social consciousness (Black Panther), while others have more of a brainy tone (Dr. Strange). “Not only do audiences appear to tolerate Marvel’s constant experimentation,” says Harrison, “but it has become a critical element of the MCU experience: Fans go to the next film looking for something different.”
How it can work in your universe: Companies should think about what their innovation curve looks like. How do you push against assumptions customers might have about your product? The goal, Harrison says, is to continually challenge them a little bit, so they stay open to innovations from you.
“If you’re always selling me the same thing, then when I show up, I want exactly what you’ve sold me in the past,” says Harrison. “If you’re constantly tweaking things, then what you’re teaching me as a consumer is that I need to be ready to be surprised. I need to be expecting the unexpected.”