The classic series gave us an insight into the life of an imaginative person trapped in a world of work that was procedural and meaningless. What would Reggie do today and how much better equipped are we to unlock the power of the imagination?
So as to not exclude those of you who don’t know the story, Reggie was a middle aged executive for a company called Sunshine Desserts. To escape the mundane repetition of corporate life Reggie indulges in fantasies and daydreams about his boss, his secretary, and his mother in law as a hippopotamus amongst other things. He also plays with organisational and social rules and boundaries as he slips towards what we would probably describe as a breakdown. Eventually he starts his own shop selling useless items which becomes an enormous success and business empire. Despite the anarchic nature of this new venture Reggie eventually realises that he has simply recreated the monster that was sunshine desserts with all its rules, deference and predictability.
Although it was a comedy, there was something deeply sad about the Perrin story. At the heart of that sadness for me was a man who was not fulfilled in his life or his work. Sunshine Desserts had no interest in tapping into all that Reggie could clearly offer; the maniacal boss, CJ, was more interested in using his own career as an absolute model of how it should all be done. You can almost hear him now: “I didn’t get where I am today by being imaginative!”.
The frustration that Reggie felt could also be seen in how he reacted to the yes men who were themselves looking to him for the model of how it should all be done. There was a deep sigh whenever he knew he would have to face them but, at least in the early stages, a resignation that the game was played a certain way and here we go again. You also felt that part of Reggie’s problems was that he was clearly able to play that game, at least for a while, and so his individuality and imagination could remain hidden behind the role he played of successful middle manager.
I worked a few years ago for a senior leader who used to say that “everytime you hire a pair of arms and legs, you get a brain thrown in for free”. His point, of course, was that collectively in an organisation of any real size we have huge amounts of collective brain power and imagination that far exceed the capabilities of even the most powerful computers, but we don’t use it. If I’m being honest, he didn’t manage to use it either, but he wasn’t alone. The potential power of all those imaginations could be overwhelming and how do you begin to ‘organise’, ‘structure’ and ‘manage’ the imaginations of your workforce. Does that even make sense? We can all cope with ideas and initiatives, but how do we draw out and encourage the radical that takes genuine leaps of imagination from where we are now? Reggie didn’t want to simply do things differently, he wanted to turn the entire model on its head.
Sunshine Desserts eventually went out of business, whilst Reggie’s new venture went on to become hugely profitable. Could Reggie Perrin have saved Sunshine Desserts? And what could his boss, the fearsome CJ, have done to release Reggie’s potential rather than lose him in such a dramatic way?