Process Management Lessons from the Movie ‘Interstellar’

(I published this blog first in LinkedIn in Jan 2015, after the initial excitement of watching a sci-fi movie that was created with scientific research. Not only was the movie an intellectual and visual treat, the aftermath of its release also resulted in reverse engineering in the field of astro-physics itself. I had as much fun connecting the movie with process management, as watching the movie itself. Re-publishing it here with some minor tweaks. Picture courtesy: a still from the movie Interstellar)

I am a ‘movie’ (or ‘film’ as still called in many countries) buff, and love to watch movies that are well made and that stimulate the intellect. Movies like Shawshank Redemption, Shutter Island, Fight Club, The Matrix, The Game, The Sixth Sense, Contact, etc. (just to name a few – these are top-of-my-mind recalls in random order, am sure there are many such) are known for their intense portrayal of human nature and ideas that have set more intelligent minds racing to explore further. Some of them needed to be re-watched to make sure the message was got right. Christopher Nolan’s 2014 end released ‘Interstellar’ is one such movie!

While watching such movies, just like many others would, I tend to visualize their connections with situations in real life. Of late, I have started viewing them also from a business process re-engineering perspective. Why not? When the process of movie making is itself an industry – reminds me of the quote / movie ‘There is no business, like show business’.

However, this blog is not to criticize the movie (there are professional film critics who are great at doing that), but more to review the movie’s plot, its characters and situations and compare with those of a large business entity and see what lessons can be learned from it. People who have watched ‘Interstellar’ will be able to relate better with what I have tried to bring up in this blog, and those who have not will hopefully be motivated to watch it at least once. (It really is one awesome movie!)

  1. Problem Statement:

    Movie Scenario:
    In the distant future, Earth is ravaged by environmental catastrophes resulting in dust storms and crop failures, and so human race is facing extinction. Most people are trying to find alternate crops to plant and devising ways to avoid or hide from dust storms or simply endure the suffering. People spread anti-intellectualism messages such as ‘Apollo missions were a hoax’, ‘Carbon dioxide is a pollutant’, and so on to continue farming the dying earth.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    Many businesses turn a blind eye to the big problem and investing heavily in solving seemingly obvious problems without any result. People at middle and lower levels in the organization spread misinformation due to their vested interests, and keep doing whatever they have been asked to do.

  2. Solution and Strategy:

    Movie Scenario:
    NASA exists in secrecy, and has come to a scientific conclusion that life cannot be sustained on earth. They had sent astronauts to discover possible habitable planets through a space anomaly called worm-hole. Their main solution (Plan A) is to send the remaining human population on earth to one of these planets on a huge space station that can be lifted off using gravitational powers. The catch is that the formula to harness the power is still under construction and has a dependency on information available in a black hole. Plan B is to have human civilization recreated from frozen embryos carried by a few astronauts who can travel to a suitable planet on smaller space shuttles.


    Real-life Business Scenario:
    In most organizations, there will be a set of people who know what the real problem is and will be driving their strategy to address the problem. In many cases, the solutions are known but the approaches to attain them are not. There is a need to have a Plan B in the strategy, because there is no guarantee that the main plan will work. When change becomes inevitable, there should be a clear strategy to prioritize among available options, and if necessary, to implement the change discretely. Such discretion is needed when change outcomes are not immediately acceptable to majority of the organization, but will prove effective in the longer run.

  3. Discovery and Analysis:

    Movie Scenario:
    NASA had years ago sent scientists into outer space to discover planets capable of supporting human life. Three planet candidates from another galaxy were shortlisted and scientists landed on each planet. If the planet met the required criteria (like being able to breathe, etc.) they were to send a beacon that provided NASA with information about possibility of life on that planet. Beacons are received from all three planets by NASA, and they plan to send a team of astronauts to identify the most suitable planet.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    In any business, the performance of products, services or processes serve as beacons for identifying better ways of delivering them. In technologically advanced organizations, the information is in easily decipherable form such as performance dashboards, MI reports, etc., while in organizations that depend on manual reporting, most of the information is available in emails, physical documents, spreadsheets, etc. Whatever the type of information, it is essential to isolate the Critical to Quality (CTQs) metrics for which suitable solutions need to be identified.

  4. Resources:

    Movie Scenario:
    A team of astronauts volunteers to travel into distant space and possibly sacrifice their lives to save human race from extinction. There is one very skilled ex-NASA pilot, who had been forced to take up farming as an occupation, who gets tasked to pilot the space ship which will find the habitable planet. There are two robots that are capable of storing large amount of data, and also do menial jobs. The spaceship in which they travel is not of a standard design, but capable of simulating earth-like gravity. There is a wormhole, which has been constructed by some future life forms, that acts as a shortcut between galaxies.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    Resources are the most critical component of any change initiative, and identifying the right number and right skill-level of resources is the key differentiator for its success or failure. There may be resources in the organization that are currently not performing similar tasks, but they may be the most suitable ones for the job. Some resources like equipment are of a very radical nature – technologically complex, and difficult to understand their support – it would require expert judgment to assess their suitability and appropriateness.

  5. Design and Pilot:

    Movie Scenario:
    The agreed process is as follows:  launch from earth into orbit in a space shuttle; dock into a much larger spacecraft already in orbit; Travel for about 2 years till they reach the planet Saturn; Pass through the worm-hole situated near Saturn; Locate the three planets orbiting around a binary system that includes a host star and a giant black hole; Test the suitability of planets for human habitation and identify the best one; If the formula to generate the gravitational power to lift huge arcs into space, move the remaining earth people to that planet; if not, then the astronauts who reach that planet can start growing the human embryos there and start a colony afresh.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    Irrespective of the type of change initiative, a customer focused methodology helps understand the customer needs better and design a process that will deliver more value to the end customers. Clear definition of the process and the approach to deliver value will ensure focus on the delivery, while keeping distractions and unnecessary ‘sounds’ away from the core objectives.

  6. Implementation:

    Movie Scenario:
    Despite having to face dangerous situations on the way, such as getting killed by giant tidal waves, losing 23 years of earth time, treachery and being sucked into a giant black hole, two astronauts and a robot succeed in the mission. In the end, a quick decision is taken to sling-shot their spaceship past the black hole, and sacrifice a few resources in order to help one of the astronauts reach the only possible habitable planet. The main protagonist astronaut decides to sacrifice himself so that at least his team mate can reach the destination. While doing so, and with some good fortune, he eventually lands safely inside the core (referred to as ‘tesseract’) of the black hole and finds the missing data that completes the formula needed for creating the energy that can power large spaceships. And the remaining astronaut makes it to the habitable planet safely.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    However good the process design may be, it is necessary for someone who knows the process in and out to take it to completion. Especially because there will be situations when unexpected results can occur and cause utter confusion. Many projects fail due to their inability to handle pressure situations – either there were no skilled and ‘knowledgeable’ resources who can take quick, but informed decisions that can turn around the situation from a ‘no-go’ to a clear ‘go’.

  7. Monitoring:

    Movie Scenario:
    The main protagonist astronaut keeps communicating with his daughter through the tesseract using the seconds hand on the watch he gave her before he left earth, and relays the quantum data she needs to solve the gravitational equation that leads to her discovering a solution for plan A, i.e. transferring large human colonies from earth to Saturn and to the planet that they found to be habitable.

    Real-life Business Scenario:
    After a solution is identified, it is very essential to monitor the performance of the processes involved and make on-going improvements. Suitable metrics and measurement systems are to be used to ensure that the performance is being tracked against baselines and with achievable targets in mind.

Conclusion from a movie-making perspective

Ever since the motion picture phenomenon started, most movies have been made to satisfy those human emotions that could not be satisfied in real lives but should be. They take us to a world which is far better than where we now live in. In all good movies, there will be elements of design that adhere to industry-standard principles and lessons can be learn from them. And the converse also can be true, if movie-makers follow a process-driven approach while creating their pieces of art, they are ensured of a box-office hit.

Conclusion from a process perspective:

Having watched dozens of movies that have done great at the box office, as well as those which bombed, what I can confidently say is – those which appealed to the masses had well-defined processes not only in the story or plot, but also in other behind-the-scenes aspects of film-making such as photography, screenplay, direction, etc. In cases like Interstellar, it is possible also to reverse engineer some of the hypothetical situations and assumptions used in the movie and find solutions to problems in real life.

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