Tuesday, 26 December 2017

What we can learn from a galaxy far, far away

By Tan Ooi Boon, Published The Straits Times, 25 Dec 2017

If you have felt an unexplained stir around you of late, it's because the Force is stronger now with the latest Star Wars movie back in the theatres.

The sci-fi saga has captivated fans for four decades since George Lucas introduced the world to light sabres, chatty robots and Jedi masters in 1977.

Fans love it because the film is, at heart, about the triumph of good over evil and the good guys win by using the Force, a mystical power said to exist around us. But there's more - beneath all that dazzling sword play and hyperspace jumps, there are down-to-earth management lessons to be learnt from Star Wars.

So, if you aspire to have your own empire, here are some things you need to do to achieve galactic success.


Before Darth Vader became the Republic's nightmare, he was actually its rising star and most talented employee, Anakin Skywalker. Even as a boy, he proved his worth by single-handedly stopping a hostile takeover of the Planet Naboo by destroying the enemy's command station. He continued to shine as a young man by eliminating his employer's arch enemy, Count Dooku, as well as saving the lives of both the Supreme Chancellor and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi.

For his sterling achievements, the Chancellor made Skywalker his representative at the Jedi Council, the executive decision-making body. But it soon went downhill from there because some senior council members (read jealous older colleagues) were not happy and they barred him from using the title, Jedi Master, which came with the position.

As expected, young Skywalker was furious and his unhappiness made him vulnerable to poaching by rivals. He eventually joined them because he felt his new employers recognised his potential, offered training in new high-level secret skills, and to top it off, appointed him to a senior position that came with an awesome title, Darth Vader.

His jumping ship nearly ruined his former employers and they had to go into exile for one whole generation before another bright spark came along.

In the real world, we have all heard stories of how the fortunes of great companies nosedived following the flight of talented people. The departure of Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985 comes to mind, and many people would agree that Apple would not be the great company that it is today had Jobs not return to it subsequently.

Make no mistake - people, not technology, are still the most powerful weapon any company can have. Even for successful technology companies, the killer apps are created by their founders or talented employees because technology will simply not come up with a new product by itself.

Like young Skywalker, high-flying performers are actually quite easy to spot but keeping them is a different matter altogether.

While many executives engage in empty talk, they are the ones who not only come up with bright ideas but also deliver the results. If you are fortunate to have them in your midst, make sure they stay happy working for you. Surprising as it may sound, monetary rewards are not as strong an inducement to keep star employees as recognition and opportunities to maximise their talent.

Bosses must also be aware that bright stars also tend to provoke jealousy from colleagues and this often makes them easy targets in office politics. What this means is that shrewd bosses must step in, where necessary, to deflect such attacks and give credit where credit is due.

In Skywalker's case, his mentors failed to push back against the naysayers. The Dark Side won and cinematic history gets one of its most riveting villains: Darth Vader.


The engineers of the Galactic Empire obviously did not because they kept producing Death Stars that could be blown up easily. Death Stars are planet-size structures that function both as a workplace for staff of the Empire as well as their secret weapon that can destroy planets with just one laser blast.

But they have a mammoth design flaw - their critical reliance on a powerful core reactor; destroy that and the entire contraption goes ka-boom. This catastrophe happened in the first movie when two missiles were fired into an exhaust shaft linked to the core.

After being hit by such a gigantic error, one would have expected that the next product would be more resilient. Sadly, that was not the case and the same mistake was repeated twice more, resulting in a total of two Death Stars and an even bigger one called Starkiller being destroyed in the same way.

Obviously, this is a clear case of a management which never learns from its mistakes.

Massive destructive power was all that mattered in the quest for world domination; to heck with worker safety and other humdrum considerations.

Greed - for money or power - is a common motivation that results in some companies putting product safety and financial prudence in the back seat. When they do that, even famous and century-old institutions will go bust when they destroy the trust that their customers have in them.

Financial giant Lehman Brothers is a case in point. It had operated for 158 years since its founding in 1850 but all that illustrious history amounted to nothing when it sank in 2008 due to its investment in toxic sub-prime mortgages.

While mistakes are bound to happen, companies should learn from them and do better. To ignore, or worse, hide it is foolhardy. It will be an explosion waiting to happen if you think you can get away with it.


This lesson is actually derived from the good guys who, despite great odds, succeeded in their suicidal missions to destroy the Death Stars, not once, but three times.

Yes, they discovered the way to knock them out. Instead of doing that over and over again, could they not devise a plan to capture one instead? Imagine having your own Death Star and using it as a weapon of mutually-assured-destruction (MAD) that can put an end to wars, just like how nuclear deterrence helps avoid conflicts among the super powers.

After all, big as they may be, the Death Star is still controlled by a single operation centre manned by a small team of people. Strategically, it is not an impossible plan to hijack the centre if the right talents are deployed for the missions.

Although "thinking-out-of-the-box" is a commonly used phrase, few people actually practise it. It takes courage and wisdom to challenge corporate norms because the tendency for many executives is not to try new things.

People are reluctant to change because they usually won't get blamed by keeping to the status quo. But they face risks if they push for a change that may not yield the desired results. Ultimately, companies can only develop out-of-the-box cultures if they have a confident leadership that celebrates efforts to push and do new things. Of course, there will be the risk of failure but setbacks can be minimised if it comes with a well-designed exit-strategy as well. It is about preparing for contingencies and finding answers to all the "what if's". It boils down to good planning and the courage to do, as well as to stop, if it fails.


The final lesson from Star Wars can be learnt from entertainment giant Disney, which now owns the rights to the movie when it acquired Lucasfilm at US$4 billion. When the deal happened in 2012, or seven years after the sixth movie, many wondered whether the gamble was worth it as interest might have waned. But Disney had the last laugh because its reboot version in 2015, The Force Awakens, not only attracted new followers, but also older ones who grew up with the original Star Wars returned with their kids and grandkids in tow.

Disney made an estimated US$8 billion (S$10.8 billion) from combined ticket and merchandising sales from The Force Awakens alone. The current one, The Last Jedi, will no doubt be an even bigger hit, proving that good oldies won't just fade away.

In business, know your customers and give them what they want. Again there is always the element of the unknown and possible failure. But be decisive and go for it, or as Yoda would say: "Do, or do not. There is no try".

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is senior vice-president (business development) at Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay / Tamil Media Group.

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