There's a scene midway through Adam McKay's 2021 movie Don't Look Up (if you haven't seen it, spoiler alert!). The president of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, has been presented with some alarming news: a comet is on trajectory to collide with Earth.
Based on the data-driven advice of a couple of astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence), Streep's character will need to have the comet destroyed before it obliterates the world as we know it. But a corporate bigwig (Mark Rylance) comes to her with a money-making opportunity instead. Rather than destroying the comet completely, he suggests, what about mining it for the minerals it carries? His plan is untested and risky, and the entire fate of the Earth rests on proper execution--but the astronomers, for one, don't believe the data exists to back it up.
You can watch Don't Look Up on Netflix to see what happens next. But if you're an operational or financial planner who's ever had trouble getting a seat at the table during strategic business planning sessions, you probably have an idea of how it goes.
Recently announced as one of the Best Picture nominees at this year's Academy Awards, Don't Look Up is a case study in what can go wrong if you ignore the available data and don't plan strategically around it. And as it turns out, it's not the only Oscar nominee we've seen over the years with strong messages and lessons for financial and operational planners. Past winners and nominees have their own cautionary tales to tell. But we did our research (movie night!) and found at least one former Best Picture nominee with a positive lesson to offer planning teams as well.
So what does Hollywood have to say about planning for the future? Let's take a look.
1. Don't Look Up--But Do Look Forward
While most of our daily decision making won't be as potentially earth shattering as the dilemma at the heart of Don't Look Up, the movie still teaches us that without a seat at the table--and the trust of higher ups--teams risk not getting listened to. And that's something many finance and operations planning teams know well.
But the movie does more than that too. It also shows us the importance of paying attention to the data--even when it doesn't tell us a story we want to hear. When none of your future scenarios look rosy, burying your head in the sand won't help. In fact, that's a time when you need to be at your most agile, helping to find ways for your organization to pivot effectively and avoid any dangers ahead. Here's hoping those dangers aren't actually world ending--but that doesn't mean they won't feel that way.
So how do you do that?
What Could Have Helped
At Vena, we like to say "hope for the best, plan for the worst." And for financial and operational planners, that's where scenario planning comes in--helping to add perspective to whatever the future holds by allowing you to plan for every possible scenario. In the case of Don't Look Up, though, the president was hoping for the best while Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio's astronomer characters prepared for the worst. And the data said the worse was much more likely. They needed ways to get Meryl on board--data visualization tools and strong data storytelling might have helped, but a strategic leader that backed up the team's findings (the astronomer equivalent of a strategic CFO) would have been a game changer.
2. Could Better Budgeting Have Saved the Titanic?
No need for spoiler alerts here. Even those of us who haven't watched James Cameron's 1997 Best Picture winner, Titanic--and is there really anyone who hasn't?--know how things turned out with the real-life RMS Titanic. The luxury cruise liner--a record-setter at the time for its sheer size alone--struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and killed over 1,500 passengers and crew. But reports show that there was a lot working against the Titanic that day: it was traveling too fast, ignored iceberg warnings and may have taken a wrong turn at one point that led it directly to its destructive fate. Then there were the cost-cutting measures taken during construction that might have made the ship more damage prone, too few lifeboats and the fact that the lookouts didn't even have binoculars (supposedly the only key to the storage room left the boat with a staff member who wasn't scheduled for the journey).
So maybe all of that wasn't covered in the movie--where would the Celine Dion song go if it was--but just like Don't Look Up, this was a case where a careful examination of all possible scenarios would have done the Titanic good. Consolidating non-financial information, such as construction and materials data, could have also shown where cost cutting might be safe and where it definitely wasn't (hint: you want enough lifeboats to give Jack and Rose--Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet--their happy ending, without having to worry about whether Jack could have actually fit on the door at the end or not). Also: maybe find a little extra cash for a second key to the binocular closet.
What Could Have Helped
It might be controversial to suggest, but is it possible that better budgeting could have saved the Titanic? By consulting with cross-functional stakeholders--most notably, those overseeing construction and lifeboat allocation--the right budget might have opened up resources for better building materials and more lifeboats, while showing their finance team where costs could actually be cut safely. And with the right data to tap into, predictive budgeting (had it existed then!) could have given the Titanic team a more strategic view into where to invest the budget they had. So who knows, maybe with a bit of number crunching, Titanic would have been an entirely different movie.
3. Was the Martian Agile Enough?
Ridley Scott's The Martian may have lost out on the 2015 Best Picture Oscar it was nominated for, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty that financial and operational planners can learn from the Matt Damon-starring vehicle. Like Titanic, the crew of the ship at The Martian's center--the Ares III, on mission to Mars--could have benefited with some serious scenario analysis. Unlike Titanic, though, this film is set in 2035, so their planning team would have plenty of tools and data sources to work with to build the agility they needed to be ready for whatever happens next.
If you don't remember the plot: a dust storm on Mars cuts short a space mission but leaves Matt Damon's character injured. His spacesuit is damaged as a result and falsely lets his teammates think he's dead. They get out of Dodge (or off the red planet) without him and he wakes up only to realize he's stranded alone on Mars. Thankfully, Matt Damon's character is a one-man agile planning team and is able to think three steps ahead at every point in order to keep himself alive until help arrives.
Still, some better planning early on might have avoided the situation altogether.
What Could Have Helped
As far as film plots go, The Martian is rife with dramatic possibility: how on Earth (or Mars) is Damon's character going to survive in such inhospitable conditions with the materials he has? But as far as good planning practices go, it seems like a deeper dive into the data could have helped prevent the problem before it happened. Maybe by consolidating their data--including the weather conditions on Mars and the specs of Matt's suit--the folks at NASA would have been able to better plan for every contingency. And tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence could have helped them look for patterns to plan against. Scenario planning could have helped them use that data to put a more agile plan in place and made them ready for anything. If we're all about hoping for the best and planning for the worst, after all, what's a worse scenario to plan for than leaving someone alone on a whole other planet?
4. The One That Got It Right
Bad planning makes for good drama. And while drama may be something you want to avoid when you're trying to put your business on the right path to success, it does make for a good film plot. All of which means there aren't that many Oscar movies that show what good strategic planning looks like. But while it may not have taken home the top prize when it was nominated for Best Picture in 2012, Moneyball--starring Brad Pitt--is the exception, giving us a good look at the power of data-driven decision making. And in doing so, it shows us what every modern financial and operational planner already knows: that data-driven stories can be real crowd pleasers (and also, they get results).
Based on a true story, Moneyball is the tale of Billy Beane, general manager for the Oakland Athletics, as he introduces a new strategic-minded approach to building up his team's roster. Using data and a measurement-focused strategy to assess players' values--then drafting lesser-in-demand players based on the resulting numbers--Beane and his back-office team were able to create a winning baseball team on a limited budget.
Not only that, but--unlike Don't Look Up--Beane provides the strong strategic leadership needed to see those ideas to fruition. He has a seat at the table, standing up to the Athletics' owner, manager and head coach as they each question his plan. And over time, he begins to see results: the Oakland A's data-driven approach puts them on a winning streak that ends with the American League West title. By the end of the movie, Billy Beane is a strategic planning hero, with other teams introducing a similar data-driven approach.
What Could Have Helped
Nothing! Beane believed in the data and used it wisely, providing strong leadership and supporting his team in the process--both on the field and off. The only thing we do wonder is what technology the Oakland A's have in place to help them continue to make the best planning decisions. We may just have a few suggestions!
We're being a little tongue and cheek, of course, but with the Academy Awards coming up it's hard not to look at movies for inspiration--whether they're an example of what to do or not.
So what do you think of our movie choices and the lessons we got from them? Is there a movie you'd add to the list?