By Frank J. Rich
Have you ever looked at something carefully for the first time, something you otherwise took for granted, and asked yourself the question, “How would I create or make this?” These days, it’s a common experience in a world that reduces us to a fetid state by its conveniences and abundant resource. But what if we had to create the world around us? What if when we arrived at work our job was to create an economic environment that worked, one that met the market criteria of customer satisfaction and profit? Could you do it?
In fact, this is exactly what organizations form to do. And, not surprisingly, they rely heavily on what has already been accomplished to aid their cause. In helping organizations construct the economic models that work for them, I am always in search of the perspective that clears the way to success. That something without which would leave us aimless and without access to the resources we need.
Some time back I sat to watch a movie at home. I don’t do much of that, but like most Americans I’m a sucker for a Hollywood punch line. This one was called The Terminal, and while the synopsis of it was titillating, the idea of watching someone spend his life in an airport terminal just didn’t appeal to me. Consequently, I had ignored this movie until then.
Surprise! The movie really isn’t about the aimless course of a weary traveler unable to navigate the language and customs of an alien place (I’ve been there), but rather, it is a humorous and somewhat poignant lesson in resourcefulness – the key to market success.
A visitor from a fledgling nation of the former Soviet Union, Viktor Navorski, on a mission to complete a signature collection of his deceased father, discovers quite accidentally while watching an airport TV monitor that his beloved Krakozhia is in a civil war. His nation’s sovereignty, currency, and his access to it no longer exist. He has no country, no money, and no place to go. Sounds a bit like immigrant America, doesn’t it?
He rushes to Airport Security where he is assured that, indeed, the circumstances of his new condition are as expected. He’s told that he can go anywhere in the airport, but that he is not to leave the building. In summary, he is facing an apparent lack of opportunity. To survive, he must create something from nothing.
He has some speaking English, but no written English. So he finds brochures written in Russian and compares them to those written in English to learn the rudiments of language for survival. Without currency, he cannot buy food to eat, but in the “land of plenty” he discovers that crackers and condiments are free at fast food counters. By observing carefully what others take for granted, he learns that airport carts can be gathered and returned for a $.25 refund, so he spends his days scouring the terminal for them.
Ever aware of his mission, he returns daily to the nubile immigrations officer who must stamp his Visa “green” for him to enter New York City, where he hopes to find the remaining artist on an impressive list of America’s jazz musicians. Access to the city is forbidden, one of the rules of his condition that constrains his freedom to move about and to accomplish his mission.
To cover the basic necessities, he uses the public bathrooms to maintain his hygiene, wash his clothes, and to change outfits, and a wheelchair for rapid transit around his new world. He finds a secluded corner of the airport (by happenstance under construction) and gathers waiting room chairs together for a bed. Upon realizing that his plight may be long-term, he attempts to secure a job at the many shops in the airport.
Viktor uses the airport address (which no one knows) and the public phones as contact information; waiting long hours for return calls to learn of his application for employment. For leisure, he catches up on the latest TV shows and the news at the various TV monitors throughout the terminal, and takes to finishing the work left behind by carpenters and painters after they leave the job.
It becomes apparent that he has the skills of a journeyman craftsman. Much to his surprise, the workmen return to the job admiring his work, and in search of the one responsible, to hire him – at New York union wages. At this point, while he remains under confinement, he has gained access to wealth he had never known before.
To integrate into his new surroundings, he befriends terminal workers by acts of kindness and astute exchanges of one thing for another. And, continues his keen observation of his surroundings and its people, finding opportunities to build relationships with them. One among them is a flight attendant, who ultimately has his Visa stamped “green” by calling in a favor. Another, a terminal worker, reveals a crush on the Immigrations agent who must process Victor’s Visa for admittance to NYC. Cleverly, Viktor investigates her softer side to discover the opportunity her suitor pines for. A deal is struck between the two to curry the favor of the female agent on the terminal worker’s behalf. In exchange, the terminal worker promises to keep Viktor well fed.
From seemingly nothing, Viktor has secured the elements of market security, allowing him to sustain himself for over one year while his beloved Krakozhia recovers its independence. With his purpose clearly in mind, he finds work, manages the basic necessities, and grows an understanding of his environment (market). He performs opportunity analyses to serve his needs, calls upon the resources at his disposal, finds the means to success – communications and transportation – negotiates effective positioning within his environment, maintains absolute integrity, and even manages to do good for the society around him. Altogether, he creates an effective economic model, a remarkable achievement from nothing at all.
In our own efforts to construct a workable economic model we would do well to follow the example of Viktor Navorski, who despite his circumstances found a way to accomplish his goals, recession proofing his economic model along the way. 2013 may mark the practical end to the worst economic downtown in modern history. For some, it will also mark he beginning of extraordinary accomplishment.