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A Lesson from Butch and Sundance

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

On a recent flight from Islamabad to Bangkok, I managed to catch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on in-flight entertainment. A winner of four Academy Awards, this 1969 American Western classic stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Clever lines, fine acting, and the evergreen hit "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" made it a joy to watch. It also made me reflect on a few business-relevant lessons.

Butch and Sundance are notorious outlaws in the 19th century, good at what they do and very successful. They rob banks and trains and get away with it each time. Their honeymoon comes to an abrupt halt when a fearsome posse is hired to take them down. Butch and Sundance are hunted doggedly and, despite their best efforts, are unable to shake off their pursuers. Anxiety and fear set in as they find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders. Life is no longer a bliss for the partners in crime.

Then comes Butch’s clever idea – “Let’s go to Bolivia”. Sundance goes along with it, and brings along his Spanish speaking lover, Etta.

In Bolivia, they experience freedom from their adversaries. Better still, the Bolivian banks have never dealt with criminals of their calibre. This presents them the perfect opportunity to do what they do well – robbing. Making minor adjustments to their art, like learning to say, ‘Stick it up!’ in Spanish, they begin a very successful life of crime in Bolivia.

There’s a lesson for us to reflect on from this unlikely source. As intense competition stifles the arena we operate in, bringing what we are good at to a different arena with the right conditions could bring new opportunities. Think of how air travel penetrated the local, short haul travel segment. Airlines brought what they were good at (short travel times) to a market that needed it (short haul, usually by coach or train with relatively longer travel times), adapting the way they operated to reach it (low fares, hub and spoke). Think of any growth story, and you might find similar patterns underlying it.

Here are three questions we should ask ourselves, and invest the time and effort to answer:

1. What do we do very well?

2. Who else could benefit from what we do well?

3. What would we have to do differently to reach them?

In the final scene, Butch and Sundance are found taking cover in a building, wounded in a gunfire exchange with the local police who have upped their game. Unaware that the building is surrounded by armed personnel waiting to finish them off, Butch suggests the next step: “Let’s head to Australia!”. The search for new opportunities should never stop, as competition never does.

They don’t make it to Australia, but that’s a story for another day.

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