The Martian

The Martian gets my vote for organisation design lessons of the year. Have you seen it? If not get yourself to the cinema. I read a review of it on Friday and was instantly intrigued. First, because NASA got behind it and I wondered why. Second because the science in it is all credible thanks to Weir's (the author) fact checkers – I like things to be plausible. The story of how he wrote the story is, itself an organisation design story – by posting chapters as blog pieces and then refining them. Third because it's about one man's method of staying alive by solving first one problem and then the next problem – yes, he had plans but he couldn't predict the next problem he'd have to solve.

It sounded like a don't miss and I'm really glad I didn't. It's not just about Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and how he survived. It's a whole brilliant case study in organisation design. You have the public facing glossy brochure which paints a glowing picture of the Ares 3 mission. Then you see at many points in the film Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) the media relations person desperately trying to find a good spin to put on things as they start to unravel (and to keep the unravelling out of the public eye).

It's got some really strong messages about leaders slipping in and out of agreement with each other as they flex their different styles in the shifting context. Watch Melissa Lewis, (Jessica Chastain) Commander of the astronauts compared with Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) – almost stereotypes of female self-reproach and male arrogant self-confidence. Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) struggles to act as a balance between the two. I loved leader one-liners like 'Is there a safer way to be safer?' and 'Well he's under a lot of stress Mr President', and 'You are a coward.'

Each leader weighed risk against payoff from different perspectives: the section where there was disagreement on whether to use the battle to save Mark as a ploy to attract funding for the next Martian mission was one of these scenes, as was the discussion on whether to save his life thereby risking the other five lives. (Solution – ask the five).

There were so many other thought provoking scenes familiar in my organisation design life. For example:

Leader: 'How long will it take?' Expert:'48 days'. Leader: 'You have 15'.

Then one about protecting people from bad news in case it deflected from 'mission completion', another about how to listen to a wild card with great (in this case life-saving) ideas – Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) being the young nerdie astrophysicist complete with hoodie and dreadlocks whose 'done the numbers'.

The astronaut team dynamics are worth watching in action. There's a touching scene when Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) lost the video link to talk with his children and goes to ask Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) the computer whizz to restore it. He misses them terribly but is then willing to take an extra 553 days in order to return to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. Each team member relies on the others to deploy their expertise to save all of them.

Mark Watney is a role model for all the recruitment interviews that look for resilience, problem solving skills, a sense of humour, and a suitable scepticism for authority (the last not generally looked for but might be useful – as is illustrated in the film).

There is a nod to international co-operation and the power of the unifying mission (dare I say 'a burning platform'?)

The film is also a paean to science based careers and could well be the powerful recruiting tool that the STEM people long for.

Have you seen The Martian? How does it help your organisation design practice? Let me know.

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