What Everything Everywhere All at Once Can Teach Us about Strategy
I finally hopped on the bandwagon and watched the Oscar-winning film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. While this film made me think about a lot of things – about mother-daughter relationships, the multiverse, and hot-dog fingers (if you know, you know) – it also made me think about strategy. Because, at the root of it, the movie is about choices.
For those who haven’t seen the film, it follows the story of Evelyn Quan, a middle-aged woman whose life didn’t turn out the way she had expected. After leaving China against her father’s wishes with her now-husband Waymond, she’s found herself the owner of a struggling laundromat, in a failing marriage, and semi-estranged from her queer, unhappy daughter.
At a particularly stressful juncture in her life (her disapproving father has come to visit, her daughter wants her girlfriend to come to their Chinese New Year party, her laundromat is being investigated by the IRS, and her husband is serving her divorce papers), Evelyn’s life starts to splinter. She is introduced to the multiverse, and comes into contact with multiple versions of herself, from multiple realities that branched off when she made particular life choices.
With each version of herself that she encounters and inhabits, Evelyn glimpses the life she could have had, had she simply made a different choice.
At its heart, the film expresses the overwhelming power – and burden – of agency. Our choices, big and small, determine our future realities. And nothing in business is more focused on choice than strategy.
So, what does Everything Everywhere All at Once have to teach us about strategy?
Choice is Powerful
The stark – and often bizarre – differences between the ‘Evelyns’ that we meet throughout the film are a marked representation of the power of choice. In every choice that we make, we have the power to determine the future. This is true for organizational strategy as well: if we choose to pursue innovation, who will we become in five years? If we are cautious rather than change-oriented, where will that take us? We say it all the time at MacPhie: strategy is about choices. Consider diverse input, sketch out the possible implications of your choices, and take an informed and thoughtful leap – this work is essential to making the strategic choices that will lead your organization into the future state you are trying to achieve.
Dwelling in the “Might Have Beens” will Destroy You
If you try to be everything, everywhere, all at once – if you avoid choice and hope instead to be all things to all people – the “clay pot” of your mind, in the language of the film, will leak and break. In other words, you will lose touch with reality and be destroyed. If we dwell endlessly in the “what ifs,” wondering what might have happened if we made a different choice or took a different path, our organizational strategy will inevitably fail and fall apart. Sometimes, we can feel overwhelmed by the power of choice and the many possibilities that we could have or should have pursued. This is where an objective outsider (like a consultant!) can be helpful: to force you to see the reality in front of you and make a true, strategic choice for your organization’s future.
We Contain Multitudes – So, Tap into Them
Through “verse jumping,” Evelyn is able to tap into the strengths and abilities of the other ‘Evelyns’ to do unbelievable things and defeat her foes. Sometimes, when it comes to organizational strategy, we can fall into the trap of thinking too narrowly, looking only to what is and not what could possibly be. In all of us as individuals – and in all organizations – there are multitudes of possibilities, skills, and options that we can tap into at various times when we need them. In thinking towards the future, you want to consider how you can strategically access and deploy your organization’s strengths that you may not be considering or using to their full potential, so that you can achieve your goals.
We Can and Should Define our own Success
One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Waymond shows Evelyn the power of seeing things through new eyes, with a focus on laughter, love, and fun. By the end of the film, Evelyn’s material reality – her life’s failures – have not truly changed. Rather her attitude, outlook, and actions have changed. The way she measures success has shifted. In terms of strategy, we should not forget that we define our own metrics. This doesn’t mean we should alter our metrics to make it seem like we’ve won, but it does mean that metrics shouldn’t be an afterthought to strategy: measures of success are core to organizational outlook, vision, and strategic trajectory.
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