Jay Leno and Conan OBrien

Toying with your ‘franchise’ or your ‘franchise player’ is probably the most pivotal decision point an executive can be in. Ask Phil Jackson. Clay Christiansen calls it ‘eating your own children.’

And when it comes to television franchises they don’t come much big than Jay Leno and The Tonight Show (half a century commanding top ratings). A few months back showed the travails of such risks with a headlining story of back pedalling replacing the 17 year veteran (and pretty much iconic folk hero in America) with sort of veteran of the fringe, Conan O’Brien. The move at first was billed as an opportunity to exploit Leno in prime time as well as promote O’Brien who had paid his dues in his long standing late-night slot. And yet, after a year, the network had to reverse its decision rather dramatically with a massive financial and PR cost.

Amidst all of the punditry and post-mortems, Bruce Temkin posted a smart set of ‘Leadership Lessons’ from the failure which caught my as it bridged both the subjects of my blog here. He centred on a post by Marc Cuban which asserted boldly, “In today’s corporate world, if you don’t take the risks, you don’t get skewered on blogs, on cable news, in the newspaper. Public condemnation appears to be a far worse consequence than financial success is a reward. That’s a huge problem for our country.”

I think Mark has a point about ‘corporate’ world especially those that maintain large franchises and cash cows like the Tonight Show. When an operation is big enough, it is hard to distinguish cause-and-effect. The temptation for executives is to simply lie low, survive the political ‘tournament’ and let the money keep coming in from the franchise. That approach is devoid of ‘Leadership’ or ‘optimising the upside’. It is simply ‘Managing’ at best, or riding at worst, an established business.

Temkin draws the following lessons from the event…

· Innovation requires embracing failure.

· Don’t expect to get it right the first time.

· For every action, there’s a reaction.

· People love a juicy failure.

In this particular context of an established, value producing business, I concur with Cuban and Temkin about an imbalance of too little Leadership and not enough ‘embracing failure’, though unfortunately, most of the corporate woes today are from the flip-side problem (too much risk taking and not enough concern over downsides).