Sharks, Pigs and Pirates: How to solve unsolvable problems
Steven Spielberg was finished. With only one cinematic release to his name that tanked at the box office despite some critical acclaim, and halfway through his second, his career was over before it had ever really begun. And he knew it.
He was losing money left, right and centre. The shoot was massively behind schedule and Spielberg was living in constant fear of the film being pulled before it was even finished. Both the cast and crew had had enough, while locals were so irate with the seemingly never-ending intrusion that they left dead sharks at the production office door.
‘Jaws’ was doomed.
But this film had to be a hit. Spielberg needed it to succeed. If it didn’t, his career would be over before it had begun. And for it to be successful, it needed something big; something terrifying.
Initially, producers had wanted to have someone train a great white shark, but that was just impossible. Spielberg tried rubber props, but they weren’t menacing enough. The only solution was to build their own 25 foot-long, mechanical remote-controlled shark. One that could leap out of the sea and strike fear into the hearts of anyone who saw it.
Every special effects company in Hollywood insisted it wasn’t possible, that it just couldn’t be done, but Spielberg was resolute. Undeterred, he lured effects guru Bob Mattey out of retirement – the man who built the giant squid for the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – who promised Spielberg he could build him his monster.
By the time the monster arrived, Spielberg was already three months into what was supposed to be a 55-day shooting schedule, but the $250,000 ‘Bruce’ (named after Spielberg’s lawyer) was far from terrifying. His teeth were too white for the camera, he went cross-eyed, and he had a dimple on his chin that made him look like “an aquatic, toothy Kirk Douglas”. Spielberg’s heart sank.
And on its first day in the water, so did Bruce.
Within a week, Bruce needed refitting with a system of pneumatic hoses, as the saltwater had eroded his electric motors. His sensors became inoperable so the crew had to pilot him on instinct, resulting in Bruce crashing to the seabed and needing repairs that would put tens of thousands on to the budget. Constantly in and out of the repair shop, the cast and crew idled their time away, at a cost of over $2,000 an hour. Each night, this “great white floating turd” needed draining, scrubbing down and repainting. The more money that was spent, the bigger the problem got. Something had to change and quickly, before the film got pulled, but nobody knew what, or how.
“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” – George Bernard Shaw.
How often do we find ourselves in similar situations? How many times in the past have we found ourselves forever wrestling with these ‘pigs’ of a problem? Perhaps not a $250,000 dysfunctional plastic shark that’s not fit for purpose, but certainly wrestling with problems that – despite our best efforts – not only don’t get solved, but often become worse?
We find ourselves stuck. We’re emotionally drained. We’ve tried everything, yet despite all our efforts, nothing has changed, and we’re not getting the results we need.
So, what next? Well, the first thing you need to do is stop. Whatever it is you’re doing to try and fix it, stop. Stop now, before it gets any worse.
"Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” - Aubrey de Grey.
The one thing we can say with certainty at this point, is that whatever you thought was the problem, isn’t. If it was, you’d have fixed it already. Logically this makes sense, but in practice things are often quite different. You see, we become emotionally invested in our problem and the myriad of solutions we try and throw at it.
We convince ourselves that “If we can just find that extra bit of cash…”, or “If they could just see the value in this…” then these problems will be solved. We cling to the hope that the next idea will be the one, all the while haemorrhaging the precious resources of money and time. And as they say, it’s the hope that kills you.
"The problem is not the problem; the problem is your attitude about the problem." - Captain Jack Sparrow.
Instead, we need to rethink the problem.
We need to take a step back and create some distance between us and the problem. This space allows us to review our attempted solutions, to challenge our assumptions, and to look for moments when they problem isn’t there. And yes, these moments do exist, but you probably can’t see them as you’re too caught up in wrestling the problem.
Taking these steps forces the problem to shift to a new, far more solvable frame. That staff engagement problem you have wrestled with for months turns out to be an office layout issue. That staff retention problem you’ve had for the last two years becomes – in the space of an afternoon – a diary clash issue. That culture and values piece that you have been trying to get to land for a year and a half? A role clarity issue.
The whole process of problem cleaning is exemplified by Dr. Pete Lindsay and Dr. Mark Bawden in their excellent book “Pig Wrestling”, and is a read I’d highly recommend to anyone feeling stuck. As they discuss, changing the frame that we view the problem through, changes the problem itself.
And that’s exactly what Spielberg did…
As the money was drying up, and it had become clear that Bruce’s days were numbered, Spielberg was forced to rethink his problem. He went away, took a step back and reframed the problem. What would Hitchcock do? What was the film trying to achieve? What was its purpose? What did it need to do?
It needed to scare the audience.
Spielberg didn’t have a shark problem at all. He had a fear problem. And with this reframe, everything changed.
Spielberg realised that the shark we would imagine in our own mind would be far scarier than any shark – real or mechanical – and that by not showing us the shark until right at the very end, we would create more than enough fear ourselves throughout the rest of the movie. This fearful anticipation was further leveraged using the famous musical score and Spielberg’s creative directing talent, shooting semi-submerged footage and filming floating barrels zig-zagging across the sea.
Jaws went on to be the highest grossing film of all time (well, at least up until the release of Star Wars), and established Spielberg as one of the hottest talents in Hollywood. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, what pigs (sharks!?) are you currently wrestling? What problems keep you awake at night? What issues are are costing you and your organisation time and money?
Where are you stuck?
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