AuthorsIT Best Practices

What Lessons Can IT Learn from the Cinema Industry?

After watching the recent Academy Awards, it made me think about lessons and observations about what information technology specialists might learn from the film industry. Two key lessons include knowing (1) how to approach a problem, opportunity, or project, and (2) how to work as a team.

(1) Framing the problem before purchasing the software

I suspect only a small number of those reading this will recognize the phrase, “This is where we came in.” If you are old enough, you will recall this phrase when you went to the movies in the 1950s. That was when during the double-feature era before 1960, movie theatres did not list show times in newspapers. You just showed up and entered the dark theatre while one of the movies was already playing. You would wait a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dark and then shuffle to empty seats. A few hours later came that memorable moment when you or one of your companions would nudge the others and say, “This is where we came in.” Then you’d shuffle out. People were continuously entering and leaving the theatre. How could we understand the movie’s plot while watching it beginning at some scene in the middle on to the end, and then from the beginning to the middle?

It now seems crazy, but our brains seemed to do mental splicing that did not require much effort. But we really lost something in the experience then. When you saw the ending prior to the beginning, you did not gain from the introductory set up of the plot and its characters.

This weirdness stopped when famous director Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released. Hitchcock demanded that movie theatre owners not allow people to enter the theatre until the movie was over; he did not want people to see this thriller’s ending until after the movie’s psychological setup. Theatre owners protested, fearing lost ticket sales. But Hitchcock’s demands prevailed, and as is often said, the rest is history.

What is the parallel to IT projects, business analytics, and enterprise performance management (EPM) solutions? The parallel is organizations routinely start in the middle! They purchase commercial software and then try to figure out how to implement it. Make no mistake. Commercial software is essential to successfully realize benefits. The message here is that it is preferable to initiate an IT project, analytics, or EPM solution by first having a plan for its application, combined with motivational inspiration from the executive team and a behavioral change management “readiness-for-change” program.

Although many organizations do start with purchasing the software and then do the mental splicing, as we once did in the movie theatres, the outcome is better when you first “frame” the objective to achieve the fullest impact. This is how Alfred Hitchcock would have advised us.

(2) The imperative to work like a team

One of my favorite musical films is West Side Story, released in 1961. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragic romance Romeo and Juliet, and the plot is about two tough 1950s New York City street gangs – the working-class white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – dancing and singing. West Side Story has three parallels to what it takes to achieve the full vision of an IT-related analytics and EPM project:

A first parallel is a skilled design team. Three giant talents in their respective fields collaborated on West Side Story: Jerome Robbins in dance, Stephen Sondheim with its lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein with its music. A prerequisite with successful IT projects, business analytics, and EPM is good model design and construction.

A second parallel involves who will manage the system. Who will analyze the system’s information, gain insights, make decisions, and take actions? The performers in the film version were phenomenal. Similarly in the work world, without passion and zeal IT project managers and users of business analytics and EPM are just going through the motions – just showing up for a day’s pay.

A third parallel is a breakthrough moment or event. A little-known fact about West Side Story’s opening night on Broadway is that it almost flopped. During the first hour of the performance, the audience was unemotional and unresponsive – stone cold. But the breakthrough moment that saved the play and sparked the audience’s interest was the rooftop scene with the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girlfriends. The scene opens with the girls proclaiming their happiness as immigrants and singing the song “America,” starting with “I want to be in America! OK by me in America!” It was a magical moment.

Successful implementations of IT projects, business analytics, and EPM methods benefit from all three parallels. The developers need to be skilled. The project team needs to be talented. Finally, some sort of spark or trigger event is needed to get buy-in – both from the users of the information and the executive team. West Side Story had the three elements that led to its global and timeless appeal, and each one was critical to its success:

  • Developers (the music, lyrics, and dance)
  • Users (the actors)
  • Buy-in (a trigger event)

The spark and trigger event is not serendipity. The clever project teams know when, where, and with whom to ignite it. So as you can see, the movies, like IT projects, are full of challenges that can be overcome with a healthy combination of smarts and enthusiasm. Maybe the movies could stand to learn a thing or two from IT as well.

About the Author

Gary Cokins, CPIM

(; phone 919 720 2718)

Gary Cokins (Cornell University BS IE/OR, 1971; Northwestern University Kellogg MBA 1974) is an internationally recognized expert, speaker, and author in advanced cost management and enterprise performance and risk management (EPM/ERM) systems. He is the founder of Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC, an advisory firm located in Cary, North Carolina at He began his career in industry with a Fortune 100 company in CFO and operations roles. He then worked 15 years in consulting with Deloitte, KPMG, and EDS (now part of HP). From 1997 until 2013 Gary was a Principal Consultant with SAS, a leading provider of enterprise performance management and business analytics and intelligence software. His two most recent books are Performance Management: Integrating Strategy Execution, Methodologies, Risk, and Analytics (ISBN 978-0-470-44998-1) and Predictive Business Analytics (ISBN 978-1-118-17556-9), published by John Wiley & Sons. Mr. Cokins can be contacted at contact:

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