7 Things Woody Allen Taught Us About Business

Woody Allen is both a great stand-up comic, and a prolific filmmaker (most everyone has at least one Allen film they really, really like, although I’ve never met anyone who likes all of his movies). He also has a lot of well-known quotes, taken from his films, stand-up routines, and many interviews.

Some of these quotes have a very resonant applicability to business, and we can garner valuable insights from them. So, here are the top 7 business lessons we can learn from Woody Allen:

1. Eighty percent of success is showing up

This sounds, on the surface, like it is promoting the efforts of people who show up at work only to occupy their chairs, and to get rewarded for merely ‘being there”. Actually, I believe Woody was emphasizing the importance of perseverance … he was saying that it is critical to stick with something, and to see it through to the end. Just having a good idea and/or talent isn’t always enough. You have to do the hard slog to success, which means showing up until you reach your goal.

2. Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem

I’ve personally encountered this syndrome over the years with a lot of senior execs. (Call it hubris as well).

It’s particularly true in the arena of large, complex software development projects, where hard facts are sometimes ignored or minimized, and unrealistic schedules are put together. The words I remember hearing most frequently from senior folks were “How hard can it be? Just do it!” It doesn’t mean you should be negative, or be unaccepting of enthusiasm or new ideas. It just means you should have a dose of reality in your approach to problem solving.

3. The lion and the calf will lay down together, but the calf won't get much sleep

Most businesses (especially start-ups and smaller companies) aspire to getting deals, contracts, supplier agreements or whatever, with the big guys in their space. This kind of arrangement can be a critical step in getting a company to the next level, or even helping it grow exponentially and rapidly. However, there is often a great risk in doing so, as the big guys can be extremely demanding, and sometimes can drive a young business into the ground. Woody is saying that you have to keep your wits about you when get into the big leagues.

4. If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative

I’m not sure when Woody said this, but it certainly rings true today, more than ever before. Unless companies innovate, they can very quickly become obsolete, redundant, or irrelevant. The trick becomes finding new business opportunities and models, and being able to quickly determine if a new strategy is the right way forward. Invariably, some new approaches will fail or under-perform, and need to be quickly abandoned. But better that than the alternative ....a slow death spiral caused by “business as usual”.

5. There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?

This is a great joke that everyone can relate to, because it’s probably happened at least once to all of us. Beyond that, it illustrates (at least to me), the importance of the “soft sell”, or networking approach. Nobody wants to be metaphorically trapped in a room with someone trying to sell them something, even if it’s something they might actually want or need. Generally, people are much more receptive to an approach that is oriented towards problem solving, mutual benefits, and the sharing of information, rather than a hard sell.

6. A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

This is totally relevant to any type of business relationship you can think of. It can be with a boss, an employer, employees, vendors, partners, etc. If your relationship isn’t mutually beneficial, has stagnated, or is actually dragging you down, then it behooves you to recognize it, to change it, or to move on.

7. More than any time in history, mankind now faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly

This is my favourite Allen quote. It captures perfectly his ironic, dark, but at the same time, almost silly approach to humour. From a business perspective, this portrays situations we have all experienced as managers where the choices we faced all seemed terrible at best, or doomed, at worst. (Sort of like our current, polarized political situation). However, in retrospect, in most of those situations we somehow managed to get through it and went on to fight another day. And often, we came out the other end (usually battered and bruised) because we were able to keep our sense of humour and perspective intact.