Sometimes you don’t need to pay a brilliant OD person a bunch of money to get some really good insights into organizational life. Once in a while you can just go to the movies. For me, watching Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life in the last month were great lessons in organizational development.
As Gil (Owen Wilson) slips from the present into Paris of the 1920’s, a time he considers wonderful and full of life I was reminded of how many times in organizations we hear about resistance to change as people hold on to images and memories of what things were like at some point in time they considered ‘better’. It is not until he slips a little further back, to Paris at the turn of the 20th century, accompanied by Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who finds this time frame her wonderful time that he sees things in a little broader light. His statement ‘These people don’t even have antibiotics’ signals his imminent return to the present which he has largely neglected, pining for a ‘better era’.
As Jack (Sean Penn) drifts from memory to memory of his past in The Tree of Life we realize that his (and our) lives are constructed and remembered by the countless small events and interactions that have led us to where and who we are now. And even if others were part of those small events and interactions, they would see them differently and would have constructed different memories and meanings from those same events. As the film progressed I was reminded of how much we hear about shared vision, alignment, shared mental models and everyone pulling in the same direction. I wondered if all that effort was really in service of control and assumed certainty rather than the remote possibility of seeing things in a shared and common way.
As Antonio Damasio points out in his newest book Self Comes to Mind we construct our memories first from our feelings and then build the physical content of the memory around those feelings. Our memories are highly subjective for the most part. So are our ideas for the future, perhaps even more so.
Current organizational thinking encourages us to spend inordinate amounts of time focusing on visions for the future and lessons from the past, such as best practices. While a certain level of focus on these areas is valuable we tend to spend so much time focusing on the past and future that the present is largely ignored. Ignored in terms of taking our present interactions seriously. Ignored in terms of taking accountability for our choices today. Ignored in terms of realizing that the uneventful events of today are constructing our futures.
We have come to believe that our memories of the past are indeed fact, and that our visions for the future can become a shared certainty. Both these perspectives are gently, yet powerfully shattered in both Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life.
The nuances of how these messages are portrayed in these movies resonate with so many of our experiences in organizations even though both movies are not about organizations at all.
If you want a good lesson in OD you might want to consider seeing these films. You might then want to also consider how current thinking about organizations may have some serious flaws.
Author – Tom