The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us feeling lost and adrift, in the way of inspiration or direction. And like other times when the “normal” way of life has been upended, and you’re living in upheaval, it’s hard to find any clear opportunity to make your way out.
But while they say hindsight is 20/20, we don’t have to wait until 2020 is over to find our way.
This fifth entry in Eric Iverson’s “Our Finest Hour” series of industry observations around media and entertainment during the pandemic argues that opportunity exists today and can be found. However, if finding opportunity is proving tricky, maybe we need to look for a new way of approaching our problems.
The wind changed
She sailed in
She got to work
She slid ↑
On Aug. 27, 1964 the world was introduced on-screen to one of the most loved characters of all time: Mary Poppins. The movie was practically perfect in every way, with a 100% Rotten Tomato score today. This timeless Disney classic often finishes in the top 100 list of all-time best films. If you are not familiar with the story, it’s about a magical nanny, Poppins, who comes to help the children Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Or does she?
Just before Mary’s arrival, we find their father George Banks singing:
“I run my home precisely on schedule
At 6:01, I march through my door
My slippers, sherry, and pipe are due at 6:02
Consistent is the life I lead!”
And then, change.
Mary Poppins arrives. At the conclusion of her job interview (or was it really Mr. Banks’ interview with Mary?), Mary Poppins does what comes naturally to her … the unexpected. She doesn’t slide down the banister to see the children. She slides… UP! Completely … unexpectedly.
For us, the wind changed. COVID-19. Change was in the air. We didn’t anticipate it. We didn’t see it coming. Many individuals, companies, and organizations have been hit hard by the change in this wind. Confounded. Now what? What to do? Many of us feel lost.
Our order was
Just like travel, hospitality, education and restaurants, most entertainment companies have been hard hit by the COVID-19-related shutdown. In the previous article we spoke about the colossal opportunities that exist now because of COVID-19. And some of you may have thought, “What are you talking about? This situation just sucks! Maybe there is opportunity for others but there is no opportunity to be found here, for ME! Not. ME!”
But opportunity is here for all of us. It’s all around us. The word “opportunity’” simply means “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” So how does one face strong winds of change? How does one meet the unexpected? How does one find opportunity now?
How often have you looked back in time and said, wow, I wish I would have thought to do “xyz” when “abc” happened? Think of the financial crisis if 2008. How many of you can look back and say, I sure wish I would have … (fill in the blank on all that was possible).
That is the space where opportunity now lies; we just need to find it. There is a reason for the saying hindsight is 20/20. Opportunity is bountiful and all around us when the wind changes, but can be very hard to see when you are in the midst of new circumstances that are so … unexpected. OK, you say, if that is the case, why am I not seeing it, especially here in 2020?
Friends … as the country singer Johnny Lee once sang, we are “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” Why? Because our first instinct is to look for opportunity through the lens of our “life’s order.” However, this order, “our normal” is not where we are. It is not our present or our future.
So why do we do this? Well, it’s comfortable. We love the familiarity of our beloved order. The order we know … or knew. While there may be some opportunity for using this thinking as some of the past will reemerge in the future, the problem is that we are no longer in those circumstances. We are headed somewhere new. Next. Different. So, it’s time for our plan to … adjust.
Some refer this life or business disco move as “a pivot.” And it is just so easy. Just pivot! I can almost hear Michael Jackson singing it. All we have to do is look back in history and remember some of the amazing examples of successful pivots. Netflix pivoting from DVD-by-mail to streaming. Nokia pivoting from tires into cell phones. Starbucks pivoting from selling coffee makers to coffee, Apple pivoting from iPods into iPhones. We can look back and see the pivots and we can see them clearly. Like 20/20 vision.
For many of us, we love to praise those that make big turns in history. Those that have thought differently about our problems. If you don’t remember, take a minute to refamiliarize yourself with this iconic Apple “Think Different” ad that I have always loved:
We love to celebrate these big bold pivots and we should rejoice in their splendor. But reflecting on others thinking differently doesn’t really get us different thinking. Pivot, Pivoting, Pivoted? Say that three times fast and then you might tell Fox in Socks, “It’s not easy to say, sir? It’s not easy to do, sir? I can’t say it, I can’t do it!”
Pivot. Easy to say. Hard to do? So … the question is:
How do we pivot in pickle with our shoes nailed to the floor
And the only food we get now is drippy Door Dash near our door
With the cranky COVID crapping on our whole company’s caboodle
And the entire earthly event has severely stressed our needy noodle?
Well then, where do we look? How will we find the pivot we will want to make? If we can’t use our last lens for guidance, what lens do we use? How do we look forward? How do we find this adjustment?
I have many friends that work in data science or are professors of data sciences. One of the predicaments that my colleagues are finding particularly perplexing is providing predictions for pathways out of the pandemic. Why? Because the data is not capable of telling the story. I have heard consistently over the past 6 weeks from colleagues that the challenge with planning around COVID-19 is that this scenario is breaking all of our forecasting models. Why? Because the models all depend on what? PAST data.
And while we can run simulation models they too are often based on past thinking. We haven’t had any global pandemics lately that cause three million people in a week to file for unemployment. Now what?
So how exactly do we become forward looking? If you want to embrace the future, you must be willing to let go of the past. Let it go!
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
One of my favorite professors of my life, is master problem-solver and author Moshe F. Rubinstein of UCLA. He has this wonderful concept of bringing the future to the present. So how do you bring the future to the present?
First we must see the future so that we can bring it into our present. And to do this you don’t look ahead. You look UP.
Look up? How does one go about doing that?
To unlock our visioning abilities and up our future thinking, we need to do two activates together.
We prepare our minds
We free our spirit
This is how preparation meets opportunity. So, how do we first prepare our minds? There are several things we can do to prepare ourselves and three of them are these: We get curious and ask questions. We lean into our curiosity and learn. We go on the adventure of our new circumstances and explore. This preparation leads to our understanding.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein
Questions. It’s not just about “having” questions, we need good questions. Great questions. Useful questions. Since the mind and spirit will respond to whatever question you ask of it, we must ask better, useful questions. If you ask a question such as, “how come I can’t figure this out.” Your brain will produce a very unhelpful answer to this question. However, if we ask questions that lead to opportunity, we find ourselves preparing the mind for discovery. We need good questions. Opportunity questions.
In the midst of the crisis we will find many useful questions that can help us to:
Recognize what is happening
Reimagine the future
Prioritize and reemerge
An example of a simple line of questioning would be as follows:
– What has been impacted? i.e., We can’t come to the studio to film.
– What do we need to do right now? i.e. – We need to let people work remotely immediately.
– Where could we possibly film? How can we possibly film there?
– What would need to happen?
– What if we could film virtually instead, like Animation? How would we do that?
– What should we do next? What should we stop doing?
(If you are feeling a little stuck, I will post a longer list of some useful questions that might help in a separate article).
What are your questions? Get curious. As Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Ask good questions. Ask the questions of where we are going and what we are going to do to get there.
A friend of mine at Quibi a few weeks ago asked the question, “Why are we trying to get people back into the theater? What if we instead imagined how to open up mobile drive-in movie theaters since the shopping mall lots are empty?” Even if there is a better way to reopen the theater, this is the kind of opportunity questions I am talking about.
So, what do we do after we have prepared our minds with good questions? What if we gather the data to our questions and the data doesn’t tell us where to go?
Where do we turn? Where do we look? Because the road ahead will not be found in the data. It will be found in our … Imagination.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein
If we think our way to find the usual and the expected, we must now UP-think to find inventive, the unexpected.
As managers and leaders, we often discuss up-skilling our competencies. But how often do we ponder up-thinking our solutioning?
We are simply not going to traditionally think our way to solving all of the hard problems ahead. To think differently we actually need to see problems differently. We must first learn to un-think or UP-think into our imagination. Why? Here’s a question for you: What percentage of our thinking is subconscious vs. conscious? Researchers believe it is somewhere between 90-95% subconscious.
Arguably, our thinking mind isn’t the thinking one in charge. It isn’t our job to consciously think our way to our best ideas, our job is to discover our best ideas. We need to get out of the way of our subconscious so we can let our imagination come out. To listen, to ourselves. To let go. To see. Opportunities. Imagined.
And it is so important that we learn to get out of our own way that Mary Poppins even has advice for us to unlock us from our own mental blocks. She offers some simple advice (and I’ll bet you know what it is). What does one say when one has nothing to say at all? What’s the one word that sits between thinking and up-thinking. “Well, just summon up this word, and then you’ve got a lot to say …”
We don’t need a four-letter word to describe our curious set of circumstances, we need a 34-letter word. Big challenge, meet big word. Thirty-four lovely letters to help us go onward with one precocious UP-word.
So, let’s put this all together. Do this exercise. Get curious about a dilemma you want to resolve. This exercise will work on any problem. Really. Make up a dilemma if you don’t have one. “I am looking for a hairbrush for a rainbow-bearded furannosaurs rex.” Ask yourself the great opportunity questions to prepare your mind. What, Why, Where, How, What if … . Now, let yourself imagine what that looks like. How? By doing absolutely nothing.
As Mary Poppins said, “Nothing. Such a useful word. It can mean anything and everything.” Go outside with your lawn chair in the driveway. Sit quietly for at least 30 minutes (it must be completely uninterrupted time for at least 30 straight minutes).
Look up at the stars. Let go. Let your UP-thinking come. If your mind is prepared, your imagination will respond.
Sometimes the best brainstorm you can have is the brainstorm with yourself.
Ask yourself this question, “Where do you get your best ideas?” Write this down. Is it in the office? Watching TV? Reading a book? Almost certainly not. I’ll bet it looks like this: On a walk, on a drive, taking a shower, riding my bike, meditating, mowing the lawn, listening to the seashore, or maybe looking up into the stars.
One of the challenges we have now is that some of us have lost our up-thinking time. Maybe you had a commute? Maybe you had a hiking or swimming routine. For some, you now have 24/7 family care at home or have lost your Up-thinking place to go.
Now, more than ever, we need our up-thinking abilities and we have a downward pressure on our up-thinking time. To think up, you need to get up. Get out. To your place.
We find ourselves in some difficult positions at the moment. Some situations may even seem impossible to resolve.
However, as Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” And that is exactly what challenging times sound like to Up-thinkers. To those that think differently. They prepare their minds and then they merrily dream. And … “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” — Walt Disney.
In the remarkable Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” there comes a critical moment in the story where Walt Disney, who is of course is played by Tom Hanks, has failed to find a way to work with Helen Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. Travers leaves Los Angeles and returns to London. The project is now dead. He gets up in the air and travels from L.A. to London to plead his case so they can still find a way bring Mary Poppins to life.
Here are a couple excerpts from that dialogue:
WD: “Life disappointed us a lot, and Mary Poppins is the only one who hasn’t.”
HT: “Mary Poppins isn’t real?”
WD. “That’s not true … No, no, no. She’s as real as can be to my daughters. And thousands of other kids. Adults too.”
In his emotional pitch to bring Mary to life, Walt continues with these words to Mrs. Travers:
“I swear, every time a person walks into a movie house
From Leicester Square to Kansas City,
They will see George Banks being saved
They will weep for his cares
They will love him and his kids. They will ring their hands when he loses his job.
And when he flies that kite…
Oh Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice.
They will sing.
George Banks will be honored
George Banks will be redeemed
George Banks and all that he stands for will be saved
Now, maybe not in life, but in imagination
Because that is what we storytellers do …”
We restore order with imagination
We instill hope again and again and again.
We save our Mary when we find our Walt. Travers didn’t realize how right she was when she scoffed, “I opened the door to Mary Poppins and who should be standing there, but Walt Disney.”
Recently we celebrated “May the 4th” in honor of the great inspired “Star Wars” saga. These are cherished stories of imagination and hope. In celebration, Disney put out this fun trailer. In it, I ask you to listen to Yoda’s words when he says “truly wonderful the mind of a child is …”
While the force might seem mysterious, I think our imagination of the “4th” is not. Have you ever asked yourself where does Mary Poppins get her powers?
As this question has been debated, most assertions arrive at a common theme. All of us are born with Mary Poppins’ powers.
Her power is the power of imagination and the boundless creativity we have as children. While most forget how to connect to this magic inside us as we turn to adulthood, Mary is the exception. She kept her power of imagination and she can inspire the ability to dream in those around her. For this, the jackdaw in the books refers to her as “The Great Exception.”
And as Walt Disney points out, “It’s not the children she (Mary Poppins) comes to save, it’s their father.”
What is so important about Mary Poppins is that she didn’t gain her powers … she just never lost them. This is why we love her. Isn’t now the perfect time we open the door, look up, and find our Walt? Find Mr. Hanks?
(From the final song in: “Mary Poppins Returns”)
“Life’s a balloon
That tumbles or rises
Depending on what is inside
Fill it with hope
And playful surprises
And oh, deary ducks
Then you’re in for a ride
Look inside the balloon
And if you hear a tune
There’s nowhere to go but up
Choose the secret we know
Before life makes us grow
There’s nowhere to go but up”
“There’s the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars, and the chimney sweeps.” — MP. We can look out when we remember how to look up. This is the source of our “flow.” We find it in the quiet. Listen. Look. See.
If we look up, we just might find what we are searching for … . this episode is a tribute to Mary: Mary Sue Crawford, my wife’s grandmother. She was born on May the 4th, 1935 and died Nov 29, 2008, just after Thanksgiving. Mary was one of the most optimistic, hopeful and loving persons I have ever known in my life. She saw differently. She gave optimism and possibility to those around her every day. A couple days after her passing, I was feeling quite depressed and down. On my commute home that evening, sitting in traffic, I happened to look up. Up in the atmosphere … and this is what I saw. Clear. It was a gigantic smiley face in the stars.
The date was Dec. 1, 2008, which was the date of the great convergence.
For, “Everything is possible, even the impossible.” – Mary Poppins
You too can be the Great Exception. All you have to do is … .
And May the 4th, be with you. Always.
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Eric Iverson is a global senior technology and business leader with more than 20 years’ experience in the media and entertainment space, including more than 17 years working with Sony Pictures Entertainment, culminating in the role of SVP and divisional CIO for Sony Pictures Television, and more than three years as CIO and CTO of Creative Artists Agency (CAA). He is president and founder of Iverson Consulting, offering advisory services around strategy, innovation, digital transformation and data in the M&E space. [email protected].