Tightropes and Pivots

Tightropes and Pivots

“In the film industry, one walks a tightrope, satisfactions, and dangers. That is perhaps why the business of making movies has given me the pleasure, the excitement, and the fulfilment I have always craved.” ~ Sir Run Run Shaw

I used this quote in my recent book, Ask for the Moon. Sir Run Run’s company – Shaw Brothers Organisation – was a market leader in the filmmaking and distribution industry in Asia in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, and, although it is not as busy producing films, is still a successful corporation in various sectors even today.

The Shaw Brothers manoeuvred their business into a position of predominance through a combination of clever strategy and calculated risk taking. My book is about innovation, both in terms of business modelling and artistic (filmmaking) output, and Shaw Brothers Organisation is a perfect case study for this.

The history of the organisation is a fascinating one: the brothers had to outlast cut throat competition, war, political instability, geopolitical complexities, and rapid social change. This they did, over the course of many decades and across China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

One aspect of their history that interests me, and which I tried to amplify in the chapter in my book in which I describe their history, is their ability to pivot in response to both obstacles and opportunities. Actually, their pivots often changed obstacles into opportunities. They were willing to try new ways of doing things and / or new locations of business, and this saw them succeed where other businesses failed.

Sir Run Run mentions walking a tightrope, and I can only assume, given their history, that the brothers must have had nerves of steel and an appetite for adventure. But the other thing that struck me about them was their strategic nous and uncanny ability to read their market. On top of this, Run Run managed his business with a micro-manager’s attention to detail. So, in considering them as personalities – and as innovators – it is interesting to consider this complex mix of the adventurous and the meticulous.

Oliver Cromwell apparently said, “Trust in God but keep your powder dry”, an interesting reflection on balancing faith in the ineffable and cultivating the practical. The Shaw brothers trusted in themselves and made sure they controlled the production of their own goddamned powder. They built a business that was able to adapt and shift, and this ensured success and longevity.

If you would like to know more about my book, Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studio, then check out the website here.

I am presenting on some of the themes of the book at the Knowledge Management Leadership Forum in October 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. More information here.

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