Training a Great White Shark

About 3 years ago I started writing a book. That book was never published for a variety of reasons, chiefly that I only ever wrote 6 pages and it wasn’t very good. It was going to be on lessons for business from the movies – and then suddenly everyone was writing about business lessons from the movies, so I stopped and left my notes in an electronic dusty corner. 


Recently, with some time on my hands,  I have started reading some great blogs and one of them is by a gentleman called Neil Morrison (or @neilmorrison is his cryptic twitter handle). I’m looking for my next opportunity and he generously tweeted my CV (if he reads this ‘thanks!). 


Whilst following him I noticed that people referred to him as NeMo AND Finding Nemo is a film AND has sharks in. Now, if ever there was a sign that I should revisit some of my thoughts on Jaws and business, that seems like one. Non sequitur? Probably, but then the Blog title should be a hint. 


“They innocently assumed that they could get a shark trainer somewhere, who, with enough money, could get a great white shark to perform a few simple stunts…” Carl Gottlieb”

Some common facts that people know about Jaws and might volunteer in a pub quiz. 

What most people don’t know is some of the more detailed story behind the production – and that is awesome.The producers of the film, David Zanuck and Richard Brown were fresh from the success of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and confident in the extreme and looking for their next win.  They purchased the rights to the book of Jaws with a somewhat sketchy understanding of what filming it involved. 

As the planning process progressed, it was explained to them that their original plan of training a great white shark to do stunts was a nonstarter- and if they had found a shark of the proportions mentioned in the book (25 feet) there was unlikely to be anyone in the world likely to fancy attempting to train it  -‘shark whisperer’ is a profession with limited progression opportunities. 

So, they got innovative and created a mechanical shark for some shots  – and for some of the longer shots in the film what you are watching is genuine footage of sharks;  filmed off the coast of Australia with a 4ft 9” ex -jockey, placed in a scaled down shark cage to create the illusion of a giant shark in the footage.
Despite these problems the film was an incredible success, if you adjust for inflation it is in the Top10 highest grossing movies ever made, and success from such a poorly thought out start holds some interesting business lessons
  1. Some things simply can’t be bent to your will – it didn’t matter how much resource Zanuck and Brown had – they were never going to successfully train a Great White to do stunts. Abandoning your plans – and sometimes gracefully walking away from people – can be the best path to progress
  2. Money is, sometimes, not enough motivation – a film studio with millions available to it can recognise that, sometimes, money alone will not be enough to motivate people (here’s some cash, swim out towards that fin..). Identify where are you paying people more simply because you are putting them into an unattractive environment – and fix the environment.
  3. Judging success and people on output only is too simplistic – if Jaws had bombed – and I told you the producers assumed they could train a shark to do stunts – you would have assumed they were raging idiots. Luck always plays a part in success – and the big wins and black swans simply don’t average out over time. Remember that when your annual performance appraisals come around…
  4. People can innovate under pressure when committed to a purpose we have spent millions on rights to a book and it turns out we know nothing about sharks. We still have to make this happen… Sometimes we think of innovation as being i) crushed by pressure ii) about ‘big ideas’. Pragmatism is an underrated little brother to innovation. A big, hairy audacious goal with some pragmatists committed to it – and a blank sheet of paper – can occasionally work wonders
  5. A good story can compensate for plenty of goofs – if I can engage with you and help you believe in what I’m telling you, then you stop looking for holes and start having fun. Wilful suspension of disbelief works in business too – if someone points out that your idea, metaphorically, looks like a cheap rubber shark, then you haven’t shared your vision well enough
  6. Doing the same thing again doesn’t represent progress  people get tired and results  get worse through simply following the motions – Jaws 4: The Revenge holds a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst rated films of all time.
    Tired business models = uninspired people = uninspired result

  7. Never attempt more than 3 bullet points on your blog – oops

    And if you think you are smarter than Zanuck and Brown, because you wouldn’t try to train a shark – try and work out if you would have known it was such a bad idea if they hadn’t had such success with Jaws… 

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