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Professional Projection: Movies as Employee Experience (Pt. 2)

Our Colleagues' Movie Musings, Continued...

This time, it’s personal. Actually, it was quite personal the last time our colleagues talked about seeing their jobs in the movies. But as any astute film fan knows, as soon as it becomes clear that you’ve got a hit on your hands, a sequel will quickly go into production. So here we are: "Professional Projection, Part II," featuring a boffo collection of mini-essays by four colleagues—Jason Peterson, Heather Reavey, Dan Sellars, and Christina Galvez—that splice together the magic of movies and their own professional dramas. Lights! Camera! Self-Actualization!

Jason Peterson, CFO, EPAM

When I was younger, I enjoyed Westerns—movies like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and The Big Country, which includes a really wonderful performance by Burl Ives. Over time, with age, my tastes changed. I now find myself increasingly gravitating toward another genre: movies that involve a group of unusual characters coming together to form a community and achieve their goals, and sometimes real magic, through connection. Think of The Fisher King (1991), with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, or the latest installment of this genre: The Peanut Butter Falcon (currently in theatres!).

The Peanut Butter Falcon drops us into the life of a young man named Zak (Zack Gottsagen). Zak has Down Syndrome, and he’s been placed by the State in an assisted-living home for the elderly. He tries to explain to well-meaning staff that he’s a young guy and does not belong with the elderly, in part, because it’s preventing him from achieving his life goal of becoming a professional wrestler (and a “badass”). He plots humorous escapes that are foiled… until he’s finally successful.

Living nearby is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who also needs to escape from a past that includes tragedy and a recently ignited feud. Zak and Tyler come together in an unlikely manner and end up “Two Bandits on the Run.” The Peanut Butter Falcon then becomes part buddy movie and part road movie, while also borrowing from Mark Twain.

Zak sometimes feels defeated by his limitations as a person with Down Syndrome, and Tyler helps him to reframe and think about all the ways in which he’s not limited. Tyler’s mentorship helps both of them grow as individuals and they begin to function together as a team while deepening their friendship. And when Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson), the rest home employee charged with tracking Zak, finally catches up to them, she joins their journey. The trio heads to the wrestling school of Zak’s idol, The Salt Water Redneck, and they begin to function as a family.

How does this relate to my job? For many years, I focused on my technical mastery of the skills required to be a good “finance person” and now CFO. I learned how to identify patterns in financial numbers that reveal health or a lack of health in a business; educated management teams; constructed stories with numbers; and focused on quality and accuracy. I used to think my job was to train and drill staff until those attributes, and others, were inculcated in them. However, these skills only take a person so far—and we really create outcomes, and sometimes magic, through our interactions with each other during our daily journey at work.

As employees of EPAM, we develop shared connections that help us achieve our goals and those of our business units, functions, and the company as a whole. Our interactions with each other and the support we receive from each other helps us become better at our jobs and more effective as team members. Those connections are also personally enriching.

For me, the point of a movie like The Peanut Butter Falcon is that nothing great gets done through the contributions of a single person. There may be moments when heroic efforts by individuals moves things forward, but to build something, including a better, continuously evolving and growing EPAM, takes the commitment and efforts of a community. Whether you are in management or an individual contributor, we all play a part helping fellow employees develop and become better at what they do, while doing our own day jobs. If you’re managing a team, supporting the individuals whom you direct and helping them grow should be a large part of your work. It’s both personally gratifying to see your team develop and it produces far better work outcomes over time.

I loved The Peanut Butter Falcon’s message of growth and forward progress through connection. And just so you don’t think me too soft for my job, with all these messages of connection and personal growth—I also enjoy movies about brain-eating zombies.

Heather Reavey, Head of Practice Innovation, EPAM Continuum

In the winter of 2000, I bought a ticket and, with a six-pack under my parka, watched Almost Famous with friends. The next night I went back by myself and watched it again.

Cameron Crowe’s mostly autobiographical Almost Famous, set in 1973, is the coming-of-age story of an earnest 15-year-old outcast, William. Driven by the promise of rock-and-roll, he stammers his way into touring with an emerging rock band to write a Rolling Stone profile. I was probably initially drawn to it because I was coming of age, too. As a freshly hired envisioner at Continuum, I was charged with translating strategies for new-to-the-world ideas into tangible products, stories, experiences, so that people would feel them and really believe in them. Our potential consumers needed to believe enough to evaluate an idea they’d never seen before fairly. For our clients, believing would make them evangelists across their organizations, so that new ideas would be developed and made real in the market. Behind the shiny title, I was an introvert from a small town living amongst a pack of stylish, globe-trotting (but friendly!) innovators who knew how it all worked.

I love Almost Famous because it is envisioning at its best. It’s a story, a journey, with characters that you eventually recognize from your own life. The film teeters on the edge of humor and heartbreak in a way that exposes the best and worst parts of human nature, makes you feel for the characters, and root for them. You want Crowe’s characters to win. As designers, we know the best way to draw people into new ideas is to engage them in a story of people like them experiencing the new. Good design, like good cinema, accounts for real people and their human features and flaws.

And the storytelling! Crowe uses all senses to help people connect to his story. I mean, the movie is about rock-and-roll, and the alchemy of scene and soundtrack makes the songs that you used to skip on the radio sound new and meaningful once again. Consider the opening titles: the sound of soft lead pencil on lined paper, sun streaming onto the desk in the bedroom, highlighting the dust specks in the air. You can smell that scene! It takes you back to your own childhood bedroom. And the moment this happens, you’re participating in the story. When we’re crafting the story of new ideas, the parts we leave out are really important because we know that once people fill in the blanks with their own life, the story becomes theirs, not ours.

Almost Famous is not about the dark hedonistic, narcissistic, misogynistic (insert your -istic) rock scene of the 70s that we’ve come to know. It is a cool context, but it is not a cool movie. William is driven by a nerdy passion that makes him an outsider, and the movie is about idealism and disappointment, love, and hope. And so is innovation. It has to be. Innovators share William’s nerdy passion. We’re driven to understand minute details about people and the experiences they surround themselves with, and the systems and industries and policy and regulation that contain them so that we can invent a future that’s better. We love our jobs because we get to work on teams to explore these complexities together. Our teams become our tribe.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” explains William’s late-night mentor, Lester Bangs, played in the film by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

We’re dreamers, just like William. We care about life in the future—the impact of our work. We dream up new-to-the-world experiences, full of love and hope and struggle and human decency, and grow optimistic. Then we envision these experiences and tell stories that help the people around us believe, too.

Dan Sellars, Design Team Lead, EPAM

Sam Medes’ 2002 epic, Road to Perdition, is a powerful story drawing upon morality and love, coupled with the intensity of a noir story.

John O'Sullivan has a family, and when his boss becomes paranoid that his little angels are going to bring down his empire, he orders them all killed. But things don't work out very nicely, and what follows is the tale of a father and son traveling together on a journey to Perdition, a town on Lake Michigan, to save their souls.

The spellbound lens of this story moves with a mesmerizing staccato—it draws a long slow gaze upon those who refute honor and pay with harsh retribution for the crimes and misdemeanors. It's without remorse. It’s an unmistakably mournful and dark palette from Conrad Hall’s refined striking cinematography and lighting. It has an implacable cleanest to every visual nuance and every frame of this movie. It’s a breathtakingly precise, layered eye that prevails over the tiniest of character details. Conrad creates a limbo of darkness, shadow, night, fearful faces half-seen, cold, and snow. His characters stand in downpours, the rain running off the brims of their fedoras and soaking the shoulders of their thick wool overcoats. Their feet must always be cold. The photography draws a visceral chill.

The scene from the third act is sublime and spellbinding perfection, as flawlessly and seamlessly rendered as any cinematic scene ever has been in recent memory. It’s both haunting and heartbreaking, moving and magnificent, with that touch of soulful, ancient Irish whistling near the end of it, that whistle of yearning, of regret, of memories past and of love mournfully departed. An amazing scene, and unforgettable.

So what does all this have to do with my profession? It’s about the rhythm of innovation, whose intricate syncopations I feel every day at work. Innovation, much like Road to Perdition’s narrative, has rising tension from the significance of the challenge. One can draw upon parallels from a three-act structure, as humans and organizations overcome the rising tide of change and build opportunity into a near-future strategy to thrive and grow. If it’s a story worth listening to, organizations driving adaptive change through story tell the journey in compelling terms. Who are we, what do we believe in, what makes us defendable with a moat around our business? If you listen to Warren Buffett talk about business, you’ll recognize his compelling persuasion to frame change in story terms.

Christina Galvez, Senior Consultant, Strategy at EPAM Continuum

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) is a movie about a lot of things: human goodness, unsolved crimes, and unreliable narration. Though not an obvious analog to what I do at EPAM Continuum—Japanese, black-and-white auteur cinema?—its depiction of unreliable narration presents the fundamental murkiness in reconciling multiple narratives into a story that feels true or right… which you could say is part of my job most days. The suspense of Rashomon is similar to the challenge and, by extension, the excitement of what we do as strategists: the hunt for the right story and ideas based on a critical understanding of what we learn from people.

We listen to our clients’ and their customers’ experiences, their truths. We collect these disparate perspectives which are paradoxically both credible (true) and unreliable (subjective to a single viewpoint only). In Rashomon, a samurai is murdered, and his wife is raped, in the forest. The culprit(s) are unknown. A cast of memorable characters shares what they saw and what they believe over the course of two hours of world-class, Criterion Collection-blessed cinema. By the ending, the viewer is left to piece together their version of what’s happened. In doing so, we realize that our view like the characters’ is only one view of a story, not the story itself. The truth, and the enduring suspense of the film, is that we’ll never know what happened. Or do we?

As a strategist, it’s part of my job to reconcile our clients’ and their consumers’ realities. We collect what we’ve seen and heard then work towards ideas that improve if not exceed what we’ve witnessed in the field. This sounds pretty straightforward but with every project Rashomon murkiness sets in without fail. Clearing up the Rashomon murkiness really breaks down to asking two analytical questions: (1) What did we hear? and (2) What does it mean? As a team, we need to make sure that we distinguish the self-reported experience from the real story we need to see and then tell for our project. What the bandit tells us is true for him… but is that what happened?

After watching Rashomon, you’re left in the fog of what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen, and what you believe. It all blurs into something like truth but, under critical inspection, may be far from it. At EPAM Continuum, we work to get beyond that fog through teamwork (we challenge one another on what we heard and what’s relevant) and critical perspectivism (we zoom in and out to ensure a critical perspective, as close to an omniscient view as possible).

In the case of Rashomon, its inherent ambiguity is the enduring meditation it leaves with its viewers. In the case of myself as a practitioner, I better cut through that fog—and fast—but the film is a welcome reminder that there’s a necessity, if not beauty, to the murkiness within the design process.

Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

You can find the original article here.