Getting Back to the Future: Lessons from the Classic Movie (& the Theme of PENworks 2021) – July 2021

It’s summer. So this month’s column will be a little more whimsical than normal, focusing on the themes and hidden meanings of the 80s classic trilogy Back to the Future.  Why in the world a 36-year-old movie?!  Well, after 16 months of constant challenges, we all greatly desire to move forward to a better, brighter tomorrow.  Which is why our planning committee chose Back to the Future as the theme for our annual conference this fall.  Read on – there will be a quiz (with honest-to-goodness prizes!).

But first – since it’s been three-and-a-half decades and most of our collective memories have likely faded – let me reset the context…

Back to the Future opens at “Doc’s” (Christopher Lloyd) house in a room full of clocks (obviously symbolic of the powerful and pervasive theme of time throughout the movie), coffee is brewing, toast is burning, and we’re hearing a news story in the background about stolen plutonium, when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) plugs his guitar into a huge amplifier and then proceeds to blow it out.  Yeah, heavy metal was peaking in the mid-1980s.  Later that night (at 1:15AM to be exact) the two main characters meet at a shopping mall parking lot, and Doc shows Marty that the time machine he’s been working on since the 50s actually works, using a customized DeLorean and powered by the plutonium he stole from Libyan terrorists.  Doc sets the date in the car to November 1955 (the year he was inventing time travel), but just as he began demonstrating to Marty, Doc is killed in a drive-by shooting by the terrorists.

Marty uses the DeLorean time machine to escape the scene to November 1955, where he meets George McFly (a teenager who is being bullied by another teenager, Biff – “hello, anybody in there?!”) and Lorraine, who unfortunately forms a crush on Marty.  Yeah, that’s a problem, as George and Lorraine were to become Marty’s parents, so if Lorraine instead chooses Marty over George, the future would be forever changed.  In 1955, Marty also has to locate the younger version of his friend, Doc, to help him (Marty) get back to 1985 and also to warn Doc of the terrorists 30 years later.

It all generally works out, as Marty helps George stand up to Biff, which draws the attention of Lorraine, restoring the sequence of events that allow those two to marry and have Marty as their kid.  And Marty successfully travels back to 1985, using the power of lightening captured from a bolt hitting the clocktower – generating the same power as the plutonium that delivered him the first time (that would be 1.21 Gigowatts, to be exact!).  Back to the future in 1985, George and Lorraine are happily married with kids (including Marty); Biff is a concierge auto valet; and Marty and Jennifer (his girlfriend) witness Doc arriving in a souped up DeLorean, who tells them to get in – that they all must travel to 2015 to save their future children.

The movie is light, clever, and humorous.  It’s also filled with dozens of metaphors and allegories.  In fact, many articles have been written that try to inventory all the symbols and hidden meanings in the movie.  One of them – 88 Things you Missed in the Trilogy – is probably the most comprehensive, itemizing literally 88 symbols and metaphors (not coincidentally the speed required to successfully transport the DeLorean through time).

From all of the various symbols, I pulled out five that have applicable meaning to us as leaders and professionals (ok, it’s a stretch – but all of my articles try to have some relevance to performance excellence or continuous improvement).  So, here you go:

  • The Power of Setting Goals – every main character in the trilogy had intensions or goals: Doc’s was to build a time machine; Marty’s was to save his parents and his friend, Doc; George McFly was to become a writer (and to win over Lorraine).  Setting goals – and not giving up when faced with obstacles – are as important in real life as they are in the story.  They are vital to crystalize a future vision; they help prioritize strategies and resources; and they motivate future behavior.  And they are important for individuals (leaders and professionals, both in personal and professional lives), as well as organizations.  You’ll never know if you’ve successfully “arrived” if you don’t first know the desired destination.
  • Destiny, Time, and Consequences – the movie is heavily focused on time – on how seemingly small, insignificant choices today can have a large or long-lasting impact tomorrow.  Had Lorraine gone for Marty instead of George, the McFly’s would never had married, had kids, and had the future they were destined to have.  It happens all the time: the educational pathways we choose or careers we decide to pursue; the friends we choose to associate with; even right down to the route we choose to take on a commute could impact the future.  (After the last car accident I had two or three years ago, I often wondered if I had just taken a different street or hit one more red light, the circumstances wouldn’t have lined up in a way to cause the accident.)  Seemingly innocent or insignificant choices can lead to pretty consequential outcomes.  Same with organizations: the strategies it pursues today, the decisions it makes, the markets it targets and so forth all impact future performance.  The key is to be aware of cause-and-effect relationships in our professional (and personal) lives, using as much data as we can to make more informed, more evidence-based decisions.  And then using additional data to course-correct as needed to shape our desired path forward.
  • Navigating Change – One of the great allegories I think in the movie is the center of the time travel machine, which Doc called the Flux Capacitor (that’s where the plutonium is inserted, which powered the DeLorean back or forward in time).  Obviously, the Flux Capacitor is a fictitious thing. But if you break down the words – flux means constant change and capacitor is a device used to store energy – my interpretation is we all need a device (a method, a tool, an approach) to harness energy and manage change.  In the movie, the device enabled time travel.  In real life, systematically managing change builds flexibility, agility, and resilience.  Of course, you can’t go buy something at the store that does that for you, but developing methods or techniques to help you manage change is key to personal, professional, and organizational success.
  • Innovation and Risk Taking – I’m somewhat impressed by the creativity in the movie’s design.  Some of the things predicted (or at least envisioned) in 1985 actually came to be by 2015 – like hoverboards, personal drones, tablets and mobile payment devices, smart clothing, video phones.  And the whole concept of time travel, while not (yet) a thing reminds us that innovation requires courage, risk-taking and a little faith.  I’ve often believed that innovation and risk are flip sides of the same coin: you must try things (and sometimes fail) in order to creatively find solutions to problems, create new value for stakeholders, and/or truly achieve breakthrough change.  That was true in the movie, but it’s also true in our organizations and in our lives.
  • The Importance of Family (or of Team) – one of the strong themes throughout the trilogy is the focus on family: Marty is always looking after his family (his future parents; his future wife; his future children) throughout the story, keeping their best interests in mind.  When peeling back all the details and extraneous “noise” – the terrorists, the challenges of high school, the quandary of trying to find an alternative energy source for the depleted plutonium — the most important thing was always love of family.  (Actually, the theme song of the movie is Huey Lewis’s The Power of Love.  Seems appropriate.)  The same could be said of your team: with so many challenges and complexities in business, if you treat your people right, you’ll be able to navigate through the tough stretches and achieve desired performance (or, as in the case of the last 16 months, minimize the “least desired” performance).  All of us are better than any one of us.

Back to the Future became somewhat of a cultural icon, not just in the US but worldwide: Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 96% rating; the NY Times lists it as one of the best movies ever (and several other rankings have put it in the top 100 or even top 20 of all time); it’s grossed nearly a half billion US dollars (which is impressive for a film developed so long ago).  My sense is that its success was because it resonated with so many: it was clever, well-casted, and had a premise that we all can relate to.

Which is why PEN picked it as the theme for our 2021 conference: BACK TO THE FUTURE – Innovating Today; Imagining Tomorrow.  We all just endured a tough stretch.  And while we have some challenges still ahead, most of us can see light at the end of the tunnel.  And most of us – likely all of us – are ready to move forward to a better tomorrow: to use the insights, agility and resilience we’ve development from the pandemic, and create some breakthrough change and a brighter future.  We’re ready to move in forward in time.

Come to the conference (September 24 at Mystic Lake in Prior Lake and streamed online) to hear from ~30 local, regional, and national speakers, each sharing insights, tips, methods, and best practices that improve how we operate and the outcomes we achieve.  Early Bird ends August 15 (and space for in-person attendance is limited), so act today!  Information is here.

And here is your quiz – click here!  Take this 10-question quiz on the movie Back to the Future.  Anyone getting all 10 questions right will be entered in a drawing for a free ticket to PENworks (you can donate it to a nonprofit if you don’t plan to attend or prefer to purchase your spot).  It only takes a minute, so try your luck (and check back next month for the correct answers and announcement of our winner!) 

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the insights from the movie Back to the Future?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

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