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What Is the Difference Between Ridley Scott and Joseph Goebbels?

  • Palo Alto, CA
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management mood

I saw The Martian this weekend, and it triggered a few thoughts. Of course, I didn't like the movie as a piece of art. It is total garbage, but this is not my point. There is something bigger to discuss, aside from the bad acting, primitive story-line, politically correct but absolutely unrealistic casting, and tons of logical inconsistencies. It's Hollywood; what should I expect, right? Not just that. I think the problem is bigger.

Cossacks of the Kuban (1950) by Ivan Pyryev
Cossacks of the Kuban (1950) by Ivan Pyryev

Have any of you seen this movie: Cossacks of the Kuban? It was shot in 1949, when Joseph Stalin was in power, the Soviet Union was literally broke, and WWII brought people to the point of starvation. However, the film showed something completely opposite—wealthy villages, rich peasants, and tables full of food.

It was propaganda in 1949.

But isn't it quite similar to what I've just seen a few days ago, produced and directed in 2015 by Ridley Scott?


In 1949, the goal of Soviet propaganda was to convince people that their personal situations with a lack of food and lack of future were just their local, personal exceptions to a more general rule. And that rule was that the country was full of food. The country was governed by the principles of socialism, and they were working perfectly.

In 2015, the goal of Hollywood propaganda is to convince us that the organizational and motivational problems in our offices are just local exceptions to the general rule. The rule is simple: project management is not important if we're all good friends.

Ridley Scott is telling us that in a perfect organization, such as NASA, everybody loves everyone; that's why they can get a man from Mars without even a map. Do the same in your company and you will be fine. You don't need risk planning, you just need a hero. Actually, you'd be better off with a couple of heroes who love each other.

That doesn't work for you? It must be a problem with implementation. Keep trying and smiling.

Make friends, don't make plans.

It is a lie, very similar to the lie we heard in 1949.

The truth is that you are not going to get anywhere if you follow the spirit of this movie. In reality, teamwork must look completely different. There are conflicts, fights, politics, betrayals, back-stabbing, leakage of information, and just primitive incompetence. To manage all this, one can't just be a nice guy with a big heart. I would even say that being a nice guy is a drawback for any management position in a modern organization. Well, in any organization at any time and in any place.

Project management is not about compassion and sympathy. It is about accurate and routine comparison of risks, probabilities, impacts, and their mitigation plans. It is about setting rules and making decisions. It is about making sure these decisions are being executed, precisely and without mistakes. It is about making sure those who've made mistakes are punished while those who've done everything right are rewarded.

A team of six. In a multi-million-dollar spaceship. Flying to another planet to save one person. Against explicit instructions from upper management. They come back as national heroes. Are you serious?

Have you tried to deploy a new feature on a production server against the direct will of your boss? Try it. No spaceships, no Mars. Just a piece of code and a simple server. Then try to convince your boss that you're a hero.

I'm sure you get the point.

Shooting The Martian (by popsci.com)
Shooting The Martian (by popsci.com)

So, why is Ridley Scott lying to us? Why is he giving us a false picture of reality? Intentionally false. He knows better than I do how real management works in real-life organizations. Hollywood is not much different than Silicon Valley in this aspect. So, why is he lying?


Why was Joseph Goebbels, a minister of propaganda in the Third Reich, lying to the German people?

Because that's what we like to hear, unfortunately.

It is sad, but we don't want to know the truth. We didn't want to know about Nazi war crimes—so Joseph Goebbels built a fake reality for us. We don't want to know about the true principles of management—so Ridley Scott built fake ones for us.

Think about it.