Everything I Need to Know about Business, I Learned at the Movies

Week #2 of my tribute to the movies, marking the 5 weeks from Oscar nominations to Oscar speeches.

I’ll drown and you tow me back to the ship. It sounds like an abysmal plan, doesn’t it?  It was sort of an Abyss-mal movie.

Yet, to be fair, it’s hard to think of a better plan for their situation.  Two people trapped in a submerged and disabled submarine, water level rising, just one set of breathing apparatus.  So she drowned, he towed her back to the ship, and love (and CPR) conquered all.  That’s the movies for you.

Even though it’s a Hollywood scenario, it illustrates an important point—the best plan isn’t necessarily a good one.  And that’s the movies for you, too.  They taught me everything I need to know about organizational life.  Let’s look at the high points.   

We’re lost, but we’re making good time. Ah, the importance of vision, ridiculed though it often is.  As we head off in all directions with the other City Slickers, what difference our speed?  Knowing where we’re going–having the right strategy–is essential.

Well, I don’t sell the whole company.  I break it up into pieces and sell that off.  It’s worth more than the whole. It’s a tricky strategy to implement, what with all the financing to arrange, and timing is critical.  But the basics of this synergy-in-reverse theory of business are simple enough to understand, even for a Pretty WomanSo it’s sort of like stealing cars and selling them for parts? You got it.

As important as strategy is, it’s nothing without implementation.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were fail-safe rules we could follow?  Yet even Pirates of the Caribbean find that their Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. Dang.  Is there no certainty anywhere?

Well, maybe the one thing for certain is that nothing is certain, if you see what I mean.  There are no rules in a knife fight. Sometimes business is so competitive that it seems like this is how it works: no rules at all.  Whether the source is the now sweet-seeming Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid or the still-chilling Untouchables, the importance of taking no chances and topping the competition is clear.  He pulls a knife, you pull a gun.  He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.

Speaking of sending people to the morgue, how many organizations have tried to kill James Bond over the years?  Yet still he lives.  Bond is mine. Hey, dummy, if you want the man dead, let anyone shoot him.  But no, you insist on doing it yourself, and we all know what happens next.  How many times have we seen this mistake made, at the movies and at the office?  Talk about ‘ownership dysfunction’—jeopardizing the organization’s goals by insisting on doing it yourself.

Not that group work is always the answer, either.  Psychologists use complicated criteria for determining whether an individual or a group will produce a better result on a given problem.  But the Men in Black use a simpler rule of thumb.  A person is smart; people are dumb panicky dangerous animals, and you know it. When teamwork isn’t the answer, There can be only one. In the movies, that would be one immortal, one Highlander.  In business, that would be one person in charge of a project; one person held accountable for an outcome.

But not everyone who’s in charge really deserves to be.  Some of it’s just being in the right place…at the wrong time.  How did that degenerate doctor get to be an officer in M*A*S*HHe was drafted.

With all these complications, it isn’t easy but it’s simple enough.  Implementation is mostly about managing the people.  When we see performance we appreciate, we shouldn’t be shy about saying so.  You’re a man of nice judgement and some resources. Gee, thanks.  Anyone’s day would be brightened by that compliment, even coming from The-Maltese-Falcon-obsessed criminal mastermind-in-his-own-mind.

And finally, although we usually think that a firm grasp on reality is an asset in a manager, as I get older I’m not so sure.  Sometimes a fellow who sees an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey has a better grasp on the important things.  Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be,” — she always called me Elwood — “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Thanks Elwood, I will.  It sure sounds like a better plan than drowning and being towed back to the ship.

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3 Comments

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3 Responses to Everything I Need to Know about Business, I Learned at the Movies

  1. Gary Cerantola

    Being pleasant does not seem to work either
    What else can I try at my age?
    Gary C

  2. @Gary..what you try next depends on your goals.

  3. MC

    I love the ownership dysfunction paragraph. So true!