business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Staying relevant in any business requires a near constant willingness to embrace uncomfortable truths and to prepare for and embrace new challenges. No one ever knows the precise shape of the future, but we do know that it always looks different than the past and present.

A fabulous example of this is presented as a minor subplot in the powerful and popular recent movie, Hidden Figures. As the movie is still in theaters, I’ll try to explain this point without divulging any key plot points, although its historical roots make it fairly easy to research.

The movie revolves around two major events of the early 1960s: the emerging space race with the Soviet Union and the waning days of segregation in the South. The two topics are entwined and told with dramatic tension even though, again, the key events of the movie are all well-known history.

But it is the subplot about reinvention that I want to focus on, since it is something we all need to think about, both for ourselves and our companies.

The key characters in Hidden Figures are a group of African-American women working for NASA as human computers. That is, they were all strong mathematicians, whose jobs involved making and checking calculations minus all the tools we have today. If nothing else, the movie is a historical lesson for anyone who never did complex multiplication without a calculator.

In the course of the movie, NASA receives and installs its first mainframe computer from IBM. The new machine is such a novelty that its size and complexity befuddles even the NASA engineers.

At one point, one of the human computers sees the new machine, housed as computers were at that time in an enormous room. Almost instantly, she makes a realization: this machine has the ability to perform thousands of calculations every minute. In other words, the IBM mainframe means the end of her career.

Rather than protest or complain about this coming change, the character goes to the library to get a book about computers and their special language. And after reading it she informs her co-workers that she’s seen the future and their jobs won’t exist. So she leads them in learning the language of Fortran.

The plot line continues from there, showing how the newly educated human computers make themselves an indispensable part of the future.

As longtime MNB readers know, there’s nothing Kevin and I like more than using a movie as a metaphor for a business challenge or opportunity. (You made have heard somewhere that we actually wrote an entire book about it: "The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies." Available now from Amazon. For signed copies, just let us know. End of commercial.)

This small subplot in Hidden Figures delivers a crystal clear lesson in reinvention and how to remain relevant by embracing change and getting there first. As we all know, there’s zero certainty about the future. None of us knows for certain what it holds, but we have to constantly be on the lookout for the signs and the paths to where it leads.

Don’t hide from that challenge. Seek it out. After all, understanding the importance of embracing the future isn't exactly rocket science.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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