the social organization of being out of your #%%$# mind
Man on Wire is a 2008 film about Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the World Trade Center buildings in 1978. It’s a moving film about a truly audacious, yet beautiful, act, but the story also has many interesting connections to orgtheory.
First, what makes the story interesting is its organizational context. Of course, anybody who tightrope walked across any space a quarter mile up is notable. But part of the attraction is how Petit and his crew pulled this off inside the giant bureaucracy. For example, to get access to the technical specifications of the towers, Petit and his associates passed themselves off as a French newspaper crew doing a story about the construction of the tower. Also, Petit spent many months spying on the towers, not just for architectural reasons, but to sense how a French street performer, his equipment, and his team could infiltrate the top floors of a well guarded office complex. Solution: Get some insiders who can provide cover, buy business suits so you won’t like a street bum, and learn to play hide and seek with the security guards at night.
Second, there’s an interesting interplay between the Petit himself and the organization that helped him out. Each time he does a major rope walk, he assembles about 5-10 people to help with every detail from finance to building little paper models of the buildings. An important issue is that his friends knowingly put him at risk and they can also be legally liable for anything bad that happens. One way to overcome this is charisma – an expert performer, he knows how to pull people in. He has a very attractive intensity. He also has a knack for recruiting people who are into adventures. There’s also an interesting “sunk cost” psychology. Working on such an intense project, once people commit they *really* want to see the walk happen.
Third, the success of the project completely transforms the organization. Pulling off the WTC walk turned Petit into a global celebrity, but changed the relationships he had with the people who helped out. The girlfriend, for example, realized that he was simply different after the walk. Petit had done something so unique and remarkable and he emerged as someone else after the stunt. His friends who helped him were burned from the experience. Some, just from the stress of doing it, others, from the threat of legal action. The short lived organizations around Petit are pulled together by vision, charisma, and technique, but are nearly impossible to sustain.
I have more respect for Petit and what he does after seeing this movie. Sure, he’s an attention grabber, but, as he says, he doesn’t court death. The goal of his massive preparation isn’t to risk death, it’s to defy gravity, break boundaries, and fly. And there’s an utter joy to what he does because he knows that it is completely safe, at least for him!