I went to see another film recently. Hidden Figures is a great film, and because I’m pretty lousy at writing movie reviews, I thought I’d borrow this one, because I concur with especially the opening line: “Go see this movie.”
Go see this movie. It’s wonderful. It’s enlightening. It’s a true story. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are perfectly cast. I think Janelle Monáe, who I know as a singer, commands the screen. She is beautiful, smart, funny, and steals the show in the best way possible. There’s a part in a court room that will make you weep with joy. There’s another part with a “Colored Ladies Room” sign that will give you chills. And when Kevin Costner says, “We all pee the same color at NASA,” you may applaud.*
No spoilers here
I won’t spoil it for you. But, the story surrounds three Black women who work at NASA in the early 1960s in Virginia: Katherine Goble (later, Johnson) (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). All three work in a department labeled “Colored Computers.” Their job was doing the mathematical calculations that guided the design, development and execution of the U.S. space program—including the trajectories for launch and recovery.
Katherine Goble gets moved to the Space Task Group, which is desperately trying to figure out to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is in charge and has at his disposal, not only the “Colored Computers,” but also a roomful of the top minds in science, mathematics and engineering managed by Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Oh, and they were in the process of installing a new IBM 7090 mainframe system to assist with the calculations.
Having completed several unmanned and, later, manned suborbital flights—and already behind the Soviet Union, which had successfully orbited the earth at least once with a manned spacecraft—Harrison, Stafford, and their team face now the challenge of solving the math of transition from orbital flight to re-entry. They must be able to determine the go/no-go point in space and time that will allow for the splash-down to earth at a safe and predetermined point. No one knew how to make such calculations. It had never been done.
Prejudice keeping us from the solution
Paul Stafford and others demonstrated significant prejudices against the “Colored Computers,” at first. They saw them as tools, but did not value them for new ideas or innovation.
Nevertheless, it was Katherine Goble Johnson that brought in the breakthrough thinking that allowed orbital-to-re-entry calculations to be accurately made.
In a telling and insightful scene, Al Harrison is having a discussion with Paul Stafford after another long, hard day of trying to solve the problems of manned space flight and catching up to and surpassing their competition (the Soviet Union).
Harrison says, “You know what your job here is, don’t you, Paul?”
Paul Stafford hesitates, and Harrison continues, “It’s to find the genius in the geniuses we’ve got working for us out there.”
I think one could safely add: No matter the color, shape or size, you need to find the genius wherever it’s available to create an effective solution.
We can’t afford to let any prejudice keep us from finding the solutions we need. If we do, we will just keep falling behind our competition—maybe not the competition we face today, but the competition that will surely arise tomorrow, or next month.
We have all kinds of prejudices that keep us from new thoughtware
- When the reason for the need for a new solution is unclear, we will be prejudiced against it. Just like Paul Stafford and the other mathematicians and engineers in the Space Task Group who may not have seen the need for a “colored computer” to be added to their group, we often take a defensive position until the need is made clear to us.
- When we have not been consulted about the solution, we are likely to harbor some prejudice against it. We like to discover that we need change on our own. Perhaps this is even more especially true of men (recalling the men’s pledge from The Red Green Show: “I am a man, but I can change… if I have to… I guess”).
- When a solution threatens to modify established patterns of working relationships, our prejudices will rise up against them. Having a “colored computer” in their midst threatened a lot of “established patterns” in Stafford’s working group—especially since it was a woman and a “colored.”
- When the benefits and rewards for accepting the solution are not seen as adequate for the trouble involved our prejudices will surely take hold of us.
- When we believe that the solution threatens jobs, power or status, we are likely to be strongly prejudiced against it. This was certainly the case where the presence of a woman “colored computer” threatened the white male status quo in Stafford’s team in the Space Task Group.
Here’s the kicker!
Without spoiling the film for you, I’ll just say this: the solutions contributed by these women, and especially Katherine Goble Johnson in the Space Task Group, were huge and it took a long time for many of them to be recognized. But, they were recognized.
Yes, we can fight against new thoughtware! We can try to struggle on without it—trying to apply all of the same methods that have led our companies and supply chains to various levels of mediocrity again and again. We can raise our prejudice against “consultants” (some of which, we admit, have earned their bad reputations). We can say, “We don’t need any new solutions” and bury our corporate heads in the sand. We can refuse to consider new thoughtware because we perceive it as a threat to the status quo, or our fiefdom, or our status in the organization.
But, how much will that hold us back? How much will that keep our company from gaining on the competition? How long will that attitude keep us from achieving breakthrough solutions that can help us leapfrog the competition?
How much? How long? Will our prejudices keep us anchored in the past?
Tell us how you are fighting the kinds of prejudice that may be keeping you from breakthrough solutions and new thoughtware in your organization and supply chain. We would really like to hear your comments. Leave the below, or feel free to contact us directly, if you prefer.
* Ray, Lincee. "IHGB Movie Reviews: Sing, Passengers, Hidden Figures, and LaLa Land." IHateGreenBeans | Blog of Lincee Ray. January 20, 2017. Accessed January 27, 2017. http://www.ihategreenbeans.com/ihgb-movie-reviews/.