Ned Crowley had a problem. Having taken a sabbatical from the world of advertising to make his first feature film he found himself running out of time, money and resources. Somehow he had managed to secure a star actor to appear in his film, with the caveat that he would only had access to him for a specific five day period. Today was the day that the crucial final scenes were to be shot. However, as Ned arrived on location he discovered that it had been taken over by a major TV company who refused to move. This threw a rather large spanner in the works as it meant he was unable to to shoot the final scene in which the star actor’s dead body was to be revealed. Ned tried everything to secure an extra day’s filming with the actor but to no avail. The film would remain unfinished. He would return to the world of advertising as a failed film director.
“If you can’t fix it, feature it” is a saying that I learnt from a talk that Ned gave in the summer of 2017. I am aware that by sharing his story in this blog I am also giving away some spoilers for the film that did eventually get made. However, I still want to tell it as I was inspired by the way in which he took this saying to heart and managed to find a number of creative ways to finish the film despite the major problems he encountered.
The problem Ned had was that, without the lead actor, there was no way of filming the crucial scene. He couldn’t simply hire a body double as he needed the actor to be recognisable in order to convey the unexpected twist in the story. Ned concluded that as there was no way of fixing this problem he needed to feature it instead. A tweak of the script added rather gruesome scene earlier in the film where the lead actor was blasted in the face with a shotgun leaving him unrecognisable – a scene shot at a distance with a body double. Then, with his remaining budget, Ned had a mutilated prosthetic head made. The final scene was shot showing the mutilated prosthetic, rather than the real actor. This unexpected twist in the storyline became a defining part of the completed film. A twist that was never planned and only arose because of a seemingly insurmountable problem that could not be resolved.
Ned’s story often comes to mind when I encounter unexpected problems that I cannot resolve. How might I use the undesirable circumstances that I find myself in as an invitation to innovate and approach things differently? Recently, I had a session planned with an executive group to explore some ongoing culture change work that I had been undertaking in their organisation. I needed this session to be highly immersive, challenging and experiential in order to help those present get a deeper understanding of where they collectively enabled or constrained the change they wanted to see. The time that I had originally requested with them had already shrunk considerably when I was told that my session now also needed to incorporate a lunch break! This meant that I had virtually no time left to do the work that was needed. Ned’s story came to mind. I decided that if I couldn’t fix the problem of lunch, I needed to try and feature it. I wrote an e-mail to everybody who was attending telling them that the session would centre around a “crowd-sourced buffet“. Each person was asked to bring along some food to share with their colleagues, ideally something home made or unique so that we would have as diverse a spread as possible. To my surprise this request caused all sorts of interesting responses from those reporting into this senior group: “You can’t ask them to do that?”, “Does [overall boss] need to do this too?”, “They are not going to be impressed with this…“, “We’d normally cater for this group!”, “Oh well, it’s been nice working with you Steve!” (etc….)
On the day, as we ate the crowd-sourced buffet together, we spent our time inquiring into these responses. What were their employees scared of? What was the worst that could have happened ? What did the executive themselves think about being asked to bring food? Did they bring food or did their PA sort it out for them? What assumptions about hierarchy, power and status led to these statements from others? What cultural patterns was I disturbing here? How might this group be perceived and how might this perception inhibit the wider culture change work we were undertaking? If a crowd-sourced buffet was considered too ‘out there’ then what chance did the wider creativity and innovation work have of ever sustaining? In the short time we had together we engaged in an very rich, challenging and reflective conversation that has since proven crucial in the ongoing work. A conversation that would likely never have taken place had the problem of lunch not arisen.
So, when you are faced with an unexpected challenge, think of Ned and ask yourself…
“What’s the offer here?”
“What is the unique creative gift that this situation is presenting to me?”
And, if you can’t fix it – feature it.