What ‘Risky Business’ teaches us about this risky business

There are some memorable lines in the 1983 hit movie Risky Business that made a star of Tom Cruise as Joel Goodsen. I go for the sardonic quip of the Porsche garage service manager, asking “Who’s the U-boat commander?” when returning the 928, following its dip in Lake Michigan. 

Others might be tempted by Joel’s dull father’s advice: “Sometimes you just gotta say ‘what the heck?’” But if we’re being really bold, and honest, and true to the film, the stand-out line, as delivered by Joel’s sidekick Miles, just has to be: “Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, ‘what the f***?’. ‘what the f***?’ gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.”

George Mitchell, the ‘father of fracking’, who died in July aged 94, might have sympathised with this sentiment. His obituary records that he “leveraged a penchant for hard work, an appetite for risk and dogged persistence in the face of futility into a technological breakthrough that reshaped the global energy industry and made the wildcat oilman a billionaire”. Not a bad legacy for the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a cleaning and shoeshine business in Galveston, Texas. Of course, fracking is in the news for a variety of reasons at the moment, but nothing changes the fact that Mitchell’s idea was genuinely innovative.

He created a new way of doing things, and if being a philanthropic billionaire was not impressive enough, then consider the words of industry sage Daniel Yergin (author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World). Mitchell “changed the world energy outlook in the 21st century and set in motion the global rebalancing of oil & gas supply that is now occurring”. So was Mitchell a “what the heck?” man or was “what the f***?” more his style? Opportunity certainly made his future, and if we are to believe Yergin, ours too.

Being bold, going against the grain and giving it a go is central to technology innovation, particularly in the oil & gas sector. The irony is, for a business chock full of engineers and entrepreneurs, all of whom see every challenge as an opportunity, the accepted norm is that they’re all running a race to be second. Risk management is rightly paramount in an industry where words such as Macondo, Piper Alpha and Exxon Valdez are laden with emotional and personal meaning.

So what happens if you are a budding George Mitchell and you have overcome the risk aversion and scepticism of the supply chain as you bring your breakthrough ‘blue ocean’, cost-saving, production-enhancing, lifesaving widget to market? You’ve actually done all the hard work, or so you think. And being an all-knowing engineer you turn your hand to a spot of branding and marketing, because that can’t be too difficult.

But just stop. Go online and buy the 2009 book Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Compete against Brand Leaders by Adam Morgan. Discover how the same bravado that brought your idea to life should help it challenge the established market players. Eight credos are listed. Amongst my favourites are ‘build a lighthouse identity’, by which one should be ultra-clear about what sets you apart, and not pander to accepted customer norms (visible or verbal) and ‘create symbols of re-evaluation’ (in effect, do the unexpected).

There’s much, much more to it than this, and the book is not without its flaws. But in the familiarity of the oil & gas industry, where many use the blandest stands or dullest literature to eulogise about their latest, newest, cleverest, safest product or service, remember, there is another way. Just say “what the f***?” and do it differently because we all know Miles was right.

Freedom gives you opportunity and opportunity makes your future.