imitationgame-featured

What Alan Turing teaches us about breaking paradigms to achieve breakthrough results

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journals on December 14, 2020.

Movies entertain, inspire and teach us valuable leadership lessons. One such movie is “The Imitation Game,” a 2014 film about Alan Turing and his small team of elite mathematicians and code breakers who broke the “unbreakable” German Enigma code during World War II, turning the tide of the war.

In January 2015, I wrote an article about the themes of  “The Imitation Game” that ran through the film. These are my updated perspectives on those themes.

Achieve breakthrough results with an unwavering resolve

Turing lacked interpersonal skills and would have failed as a leader in many situations. At first, his arrogance alienated his fellow code breakers. He was driven by his strong belief that “… only a machine could defeat another machine.” Perhaps it was Turing’s arrogance that was needed to establish a new paradigm.

Prior attempts at breaking the Enigma code by humans using traditional methods were unsuccessful. Turing believed that the only way to break the Enigma code was to break traditional paradigms and approach the code-breaking task in a completely different way – with an electro-mechanical machine, one of the first computers. Turing slowly won his team over with an unwavering resolve that his approach was the only one that would break the code. 

His team began to develop ownership in Turing’s approach, and threatened to quit when the naval commanding officer who headed the Enigma project wanted to fire Turing because the military had no faith in anything outside of their own narrow inflexible framework for breaking the code.

Don’t let bureaucracy hinder creativity and innovation

The commander who headed the Enigma project was someone who could only think in traditional terms. He says to Turing, “Have you ever won a war? … It’s done through order, discipline [and] chain of command. … You will do as your commanding officer instructs.” Definitely not a style of leadership for projects that require innovation and creativity. Turing then asks the naval commander who his commanding officer is, and he responds, “Winston Churchill.”

Turing sends a letter to Churchill, and as a result of that letter, Churchill puts him in charge of the code-breaking project. Had Turing acquiesced and played by the rules of “order, discipline [and] chain of command,” the Enigma code would not have been broken, and WWII could have lasted many more years.

Photo credit: Jack English

Turing’s passionate belief that his approach was right drove him to jump the chain of command. This can be risky to one’s career, so exercise caution before going around your boss. Turing broke through a bureaucracy that was crushing innovation and creativity. Many initiatives that require a rapid pace and out-of-the-box thinking are often pursued outside of the formal organization and the bureaucracy.

Recognize and respect the abilities of women

The film is a window into society some 80 years ago. Fortunately, respect for the abilities of women in the workplace have changed, but we still have a long way to go.

After Churchill put Turing in charge of the code-breaking project, he searches for additional candidates for his team. Code-breaking candidates pre-qualify by completing a newspaper crossword puzzle in less than 10 minutes. 

When Joan Clarke, a pre-qualified woman, is late for an in-person round of problem-solving qualification, she is barred from entry to the room. Clarke is not viewed as someone who would have pre-qualified, and it is assumed that she could only be in the building to apply for a secretarial position, and is directed to where these candidates are screened. Clarke is not taken seriously until Turing intervenes and he allows her to enter the room, full of only men.

The candidates are given six minutes to solve a problem, and Clarke is the first to solve it in five minutes and 34 seconds, a feat that even amazed Turing. She and only one other candidate are selected to join Turing’s code-breaking team. Clarke would go on to play a key role in the project.

The most impactful statement in the film is: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.” As leaders, we need to remember that innovation and creativity comes from those who break paradigms, think differently and take risks. Sometimes the most innovative and creative people are those who are the most unconventional. As leaders, we also need to be mindful not to let bureaucracy kill new initiatives.

Let’s get rid of any pre-conceived notions of what people are capable of achieving based on gender. One wonders how much more advanced civilization and our quality of life would be today if over the course of history, women were as respected as men and had the same opportunities based on their abilities. 


Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.