Batfleck and Change Management
Dealing with change – The Ben Affleck as Batman case study
Change is hard in schools, and it is ever present. Schools are constantly dealing with a moving educational and political landscape, classroom teachers are constantly dealing with dynamic classrooms and change initiatives within their schools and Principals are constantly dealing with juggling the working parts of a school and leading change to improve outcomes.
What strikes me most about leading change is that people’s reactions to change are predictably unpredictable. What I mean by this is that while we know a lot about the stages of change, and how people move through them, we can’t always predict who will embrace the change and who will fight it. There have been times in my career when I have braced for open rebellion to a change, and had it received with great positivity and acceptance, whilst conversely I’ve seen seemingly trivial changes invoke the ire of the Gods in some staff.
In this blog I’ll discuss change reactions in schools, by discussing my favourite comic book character Batman.
Somewhat like a typical comic book character, I have two sides to my personality. While I work very hard in my school and perform the duties of a Campus Principal by day, by night I could fairly be described as a pop culture nerd. Basically this involves me devouring as much pop culture and trivia as I can in the form of watching movies, TV shows and reading comic books. I then discuss this stuff with friends as seriously and academically as I would in my day job. It leads me to having an enormous amount of knowledge about things that don’t really matter and have no useful purpose, except for the enjoyment it gives me and how it helps me relax. The only clue that my staff have about my dark side is my coffee mug, which has an enormous Batman logo on it.
Needless to say, I was incredibly excited in 2013 to hear that Warner Brothers planned on following up their successful but controversial Superman movie Man of Steel with Batman V Superman. This was every comic book lovers dream, and to top it all off, the filmmakers were seemingly drawing inspiration from the epic Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. The notoriously cranky internet comic book fandom seemed for once in unanimous agreement that this was too good to be true. And then came an announcement that led to textbook reactions to change. The actor Ben Affleck was cast as Batman.
In business circles, change management is often represented by the change curve, a cycle which shows how people and organisations move through the change management process. The change cycle proposes that many people move through the following stages during change processes, denial, resistance, exploration and finally commitment. The fact that the change cycle, which was originally created to explain the stages of grief in the families of terminally ill patients, has been co-opted to describe change in organisations should give you a clue as to how disturbing change can be to some people.
Within minutes of Affleck’s casting as Batman, the internet, and especially Twitter, dove headfirst into the controversy, starting off by coining the phrase Batfleck to describe the casting decision. What followed over the next couple of years was a clear example of people reacting to the change cycle.
The first stage of the cycle of change came in the form of denial. The internet has a long memory, as do comic book nerds such as myself. Affleck’s crime? Putting in less than stellar acting performances in more than a few bad movies. Have you ever seen Pearl Harbour? Jersey Girl? Gigli? But his worst crime was that in the opinion of the internet, Affleck had already destroyed one comic book movie and character, in the almost universally panned Dardevil film, which was released in 2003. How could someone who so brutally ruined Daredevil possibly be cast as Batman? Surely this was a cruel joke played by Hollywood on comic book fans? So the internet went completely bonkers in denial. Here are some of the best (or worst) tweets:
The anti-Affleck reaction was strong and gained traction very quickly, and was highlighted by an almost impalpable sense of denial. This can’t be happening – how could they do this to us? But the feeling soon morphed into one of resistance. The message was clear; you don’t mess with our Batman movies. Pretty soon the hashtag #BetterBatmanthanAffleck began trending worldwide, as people vented their frustration via armchair casting. While many of the tweets became silly memes, many took the opportunity to put forward their own casting ideas for Batman.
As time progressed, the change cycle moved away from denial and resistance to the exploration stage. A year after the announcement the first set photos were released showing a moody Batman standing beside an undeniably awesome Batmobile. Discussion began to move away from Affleck’s somewhat dubious body of acting work towards the aesthetics of the film. Early pictures from the set showed that virtually every aesthetic aspect of this Batman from the costume, to Affleck’s dimpled chin and enormous physique was true to the comics. This Batman looked more like comic book Batman than any other film incarnation. Eventually a teaser trailer appeared and fans began to warm to the idea more so than before.
With the release of a slew of trailers for the film ahead of its release in a couple of weeks’ time, we began to see more and more of Affleck’s Batman. His portrayal of both Batman and Bruce Wayne in the trailers saw very little derision, anger or ridicule, when compared to the initial casting announcement. Some reports from early studio screenings have called Affleck “the definitive Batman”. While the jury is still out on the film as a whole (fans have now taken to picking apart a range of other potential issues with the film), the anger, anxiety and ridicule about Affleck as Batman has significantly subsided, as people move towards acceptance and commitment to viewing the film.
For me the whole episode has been an intriguing example of how people react to change. Warner Brothers, director Zack Synder and Affleck himself have done nothing to react to the controversy, nor have they felt the need to actively “manage the change.” They have all simply gotten on with the job of creating a film and allowed the passage of time and hard work do all of the talking for them. Affleck is established in the role and is now accepted as the next generation of Batman, even before the movie comes out. Sequels including expansive Justice League films and solo Batman film outings are now deep in pre-production. To quote another famous Warner Brothers film, “Once you establish yourself, they have to accept you.”
While the finished product of the film remains to be seen, the Batfleck saga shows that reactions to change are both predictable and unpredictable. Predicting which changes will spark the most controversy and outcry, and who will be upset by change is unpredictable. When people do react to change, the change cycle does highlight a relatively predictable cycle of responses. But it also brings up important questions about change management in and of itself. As leaders, are we actually achieving anything when we try to actively manage people’s reactions to change? Or is the change cycle inevitable? Will people eventually work their way through the stages, regardless of how the process is managed?
One thing is for sure, I have my tickets booked for opening night. I can’t wait to see it, discuss it with friends and then tweet all about it.