5 Innovation Truths: as Told through Top Gun Movie Clips

During one of the recent (and frequent) screenings of Top Gun in our house, I was thinking about innovation. I had just finish a popular post for our company’s blog about the habits of the most innovative engineers and I began to draw parallels between Maverick’s journey and innovation.

Ask any close friend or family member what my favorite movie of all time is and they will undoubtedly tell you Top Gun.

I can remember as a very young child, sticking the VHS tape in, hitting play and eagerly waiting for the screen to be filled with epic dog fighting. Truth be told, I would only make it a few scenes before I was zooming around the room with my die-cast metal airplanes. What’s really great is that my parents saved those toy airplanes through the years and I recently passed them on to my 4-year-old son. Coincidentally, we still only make it a few scenes before we’re BOTH zooming around the room yelling things like “I’m going to hit the brakes and he’ll fly right by,” or “Splash one!”

During one of the recent (and frequent) screenings of Top Gun in our house, I was thinking about innovation. I had just finished a popular post for our company’s blog about the habits of the most innovative engineers and I began to draw parallels between Maverick’s journey and innovation.

I feel the need, the need for speed!!! 

Here are 5 truths about innovation as told through clips from the greatest movie of all time, Top Gun.

1) Innovation requires constraints to yield creativity

In the opening scene of the movie, Maverick & Goose and Cougar & Merlin are confronted by two enemy MiGs. When the fighters asked for permission to engage they were sternly instructed “do not fire until fired upon.” Maverick was able to scare off one MiG by getting a missile radar lock on them. Meanwhile, the other MiG was reciprocating by getting a radar lock on Cougar & Merlin. Since Maverick was unable to fire on the MiG, he needed to get creative with his approach. In what is famously known as the “Watch the Birdie” scene, Maverick pilots his F-14 above the MiG, goes inverted (upside down) and sends a clear message to the enemy pilot… “the bird.”

Watch the Birdie

Innovation occurs when there are constraints placed on the system that require a creative and unique solution. This truth is also widely excepted by artist that choose to limit themselves to a particular medium to explore the full spectrum of their creativity. The next time you’re looking to innovate, spend some time up-front and set the boundary conditions… this may yield new and creative solutions.

2) Innovation requires an extremely high level of confidence

In this clip, the Top Gun class is assembled for their first day of training. As the instructor, Viper, lectures the class on how challenging the next several weeks will be , Maverick scans the room trying to figure out who’s the best pilot. When Viper asks him directly, Maverick responds with a level of arrogance and confidence that is off the charts.

Arrogant Pilot

When we’re tasked with coming up with an innovative solution to a problem, it is because the obvious solutions have failed. If you go into those types of situations with a lack of confidence it will most certainly end badly. Henry Ford is quoted saying “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” To be innovative, you must believe you will ultimately be successful.

3) Innovation requires collaboration and communication

In this scene, Maverick eagerly tells the infamous story of when they were in a “4G inverted dive with a MiG-28.” He begins by using “I” language, unintentionally leaving his RIO, Goose, out. Goose quickly corrects Maverick who finishes the story with “we” language. The scene ends with Goose accidentally showing “the finger” to Charlie, who responds “Yes, I know the finger Goose.”

Because I Was Inverted

Innovation is a team sport and the best way to form a high performance team is through effective communication. There is an African proverb that states “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The most innovative companies are very tightly integrated… think Apple: Hardware and Software working together.

4) Innovation requires boundaries to be pushed

In this clip, Maverick requests permission to “buzz the tower.” His request was denied, but he decided to push the boundaries and do the maneuver anyways. The result was a ton of adrenaline for the two aviators, some spilt coffee for the air traffic controller, and one very upset instructor. In the end, Maverick and Goose got away with a hand slap and word of his “circus stunt” spread quickly to the other Top Gun trainees.

Buzzing the Tower

Most great innovations occur by challenging the status quo. You have to be willing to push the boundaries and challenge ‘rules’ that you feel hold little to no value. You may get slapped on the wrist, but in the words of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “well behaved women rarely make history.”

5) Innovation requires focus

In this final scene, we see a dog fight during Top Gun school where Maverick makes a fatal flaw and looses focus. While covering his wingman’s six, Maverick spots Viper, the head Top Gun instructor. Instead of staying focused on his responsibility to cover his wingman, Maverick breaks off and pursues after Viper. After a few moments of intense arial gymnastics, Jester, the other ‘enemy’ aircraft in the training sortie pulls up behind Maverick and takes him out.

Maverick vs. Viper

One of the most difficult aspects of innovation is that the early stages of the process are divergent. We brainstorm many possible solutions or approaches to the problem. It can be easy for teams to get lost in endless possibilities failing to make any tangible progress. The most innovative teams are the ones that remain laser focused on the problem that needs to be solved and avoid chasing the shiny airplanes objects.

By Tommy Reed

About the author

Tommy Reed - VP of Technology

Defining the technology strategy that will propel Bliley into our next chapter of break-through solutions. Balancing a research portfolio that is yielding orders of magnitude performance improvements over current industry standards. Applying lean startup and design thinking methodology to future proof Bliley.

Tommy has lead R&D programs for several years, most recently with Harris Corporation’s Electronic Systems Segment.

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