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I see dead people

July 31, 2009


My friend and colleague Professor Venkat Ramaswamy loves the M. Night Shyamalan movie
The Sixth Sense and sometimes uses it as a metaphor for co-creation. The movie is perhaps best known for the eerie line reluctantly whispered by young Haley Joel Osment to Bruce Willis: “I see dead people.”

The kid played by Osment lives in a permanent state of terror because only he can see the dead, walking among the living with bashed skulls and stakes through their heart. “Please make them go away” he implores Bruce Willis, the softly probing adult to whom he finally entrusts his dark secret. Meanwhile, Toni Collette, the kid’s mother, is tortured by the memory of her relationship with her (now dead) mother, not knowing whether she really loved her.

Many managers in self-absorbed businesses, Venkat contends, view the world like those tortured adults. Because they do not know how to engage their customers, they design dead experiences and live in permanent terror of the zombie customers they feel around them, but cannot see. Meanwhile, the zombie customers are desperately trying to connect with the managers, trying to come alive and hoping to fix their bashed skulls and remove the stake in their heart (OK, the metaphor does break down at some point).

In the end, the Haley Joel Osment character discovers his role is to pass on messages from the dead, allowing Toni Collette and her mother to find peace. Through the redemption offered by his co-creation role linking the two worlds, Osment also finds solace. And if you want to know the final twist involving the Bruce Willis character, you’ll have to buy the DVD because I’ve spoiled the movie enough as it is.

Since I have shamelessly stolen the material for this blog entry from Professor Venkat Ramaswamy’s class and speaking platform routine, let me suggest that you consider him as your next party’s entertainer. There aren’t many stand-up acts out there where a 6’3”, Southern Indian university professor simultaneously impersonates a kid, his mother, his adult friend, his dead grandmother, and several characters in varying states of decomposition. You might even learn a thing or two about co-creation along the way.
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