Thursday, 22 July 2010

Watching Enron in the UK

While in the UK I was fortunate enough to catch the play "Enron" at the Noel Coward theatre. The play benefits from raving reviews in the UK mainstream media including the Guardian. The Times hailed it as the "smartest play in the room". Certainly on the evening that I was there, the theatre was packed.

I particularly enjoyed the play since it did a decent job of capturing the history of the company - the rise of Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow and the way in which Fastow's brainchild of off-balance sheet investment vehicles that were largely wholly owned served as the mechanism to hide losses off the balance sheet. These raptors came to represent a house of cards that had to be fed with real money as the losses escalated. While Skilling was hot on turning everything into a trade able entity - including the weather - others in the company who were in the business of making real things and charging for them, such as power stations, lost investment as losses escalated. Exacerbating the situation.

With surprise I learned that the play has basically been a flop in the US. After opening up to much fan fare on Broadway, the curtain came down for good after just 15 screenings. I read a synopsis of the contrast in the Independent Newspaper. According to the Independent, "The Broadway show was given a big marketing push amid high hopes it would repeat its success on this side of the Atlantic, but while it received many good reviews, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a "flashy but laboured economics lesson" that was "all show and little substance". Did this review kill the play?

The disparity between between the reception in the US and in the UK, got me thinking - clearly the US and UK share a common language (almost) but certainly our respective views of what is funny is certainly different.

Having grown up in the UK, I share the love of the British for dry humour and satire. Some of the musical pieces interlaced in the play are takes on the washing machine advertisements of the 60s and 70s - which of course taken on face value are not funny, but are pretty hilarious when considered in the context of the play.

The Independent also makes a connection to today's politics: Skilling is the flipside of the optimism of Barack Obama. “ ‘Yes we can’ could be an Enron advert,” Prebble says. “It could be a cult chant and it could be the most inspiring thing you ever heard. And those are two sides of the same coin. If you give that much hope and faith to a man you think is great but isn’t, or who doesn’t behave in the way you expect, then you get Enron.”
You certainly get the overall feeling that our belief in chasing a common dream and mobilizing around it is one of our key strengths. One of the greatest strengths of the systems in US is people's willingness and eagerness to come together for a common cause without sometimes understanding it!

However, giving faith to those that are not great when combined with eagerness can lead to demise. Rapid demise.

Lesson in leadership and trust.

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