The Self-Preservation Society – What The Italian Job Can Teach Business


In 1969, The Italian Job, one of the enduring hits of British cinema, was released and became a cult classic caper movie. With pithy dialogue and seminal one-liners (eg “Hang on lads. I’ve got a great idea” and “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”) that have entered the vernacular, it remains popular to this day (in spite of a mediocre Hollywood remake from 2003). The plot concerns an attempt by a criminal gang to steal a consignment of gold bullion from under the noses of the Mafia and Italian police under cover of a football match being played in Turin. It starred Michael Caine and Noel Coward, along with Benny Hill and John Le Mesurier (Sgt Wilson from Dad’s Army) and featured a soundtrack produced by the legendary Quincy Jones.

So what on earth does all that have to do with a blog about musing on the world of work?

Well, business often uses historical examples from which to develop theories on pretty much everything, from leadership to communication strategies. It’s a useful technique, if a bit repetitive, and I’ve used fairy tales as an example of this before in this blog. However, during a recent exchange on Twitter, someone suggested that The Italian Job was ripe for analysis and this post is going to attempt to apply learnings from the film to the world of work.

Lesson #1 – The clever plan needed to spirit away tons of gold bullion was not conceived by Caine’s Charlie Croker, but by his friend Roger Beckermann. In business, one should not be too proud to take  forward the ideas of others. So long as due credit for the original idea is given and your ultimate execution of the idea is successful, everyone wins (unless you end up hanging over the edge of a cliff in your getaway vehicle).

Lesson #2 – The plan to snatch the gold involves hacking Turin’s computerised traffic control system to create an enormous jam that should bring the city to a standstill. The software is the brainchild of Benny Hill’s lecherous Professor Peach. It is often worth taking a risk on innovative and untested technologies. Nowadays pretty much every action movie has a variation on The Italian Job’s Trojan horse and we forget, perhaps conveniently, that The Fastest Milkman In The West got there first some 45 years ago.

Lesson #3 – Croker must secure the backing of an imprisoned underworld bigwig (Noel Coward’s Mr Bridger) for his scheme to go ahead. Getting the buy-in or sponsorship (whether financial or metaphorical) of a senior stakeholder is vital if you want to see your plan through to fruition. It will give weight to communications, demonstrate trust and help keep people focussed. And if that fails you can always have their legs broken.

Lesson #4 – Having brought Turin to a complete halt, Croker and his team must still make their escape. To do so, they employ a trio of Mini Cooper S’s. The nimble, British-made cars allow them to manoeuvre themselves across the city and out to their rendezvous. Agility is a valuable asset, whether it’s the ability to think with agility or agile work methodologies, used intelligently it can improve speed of delivery and foster innovation.

Lesson #5 – Securing the gold requires breaking into the security van carrying it. To do so, Croker employs explosives. In testing, too much TNT is used and the van is entirely destroyed. Facebook has it’s mantra, Move Fast and Break Things. It’s all about passionately working toward a goal and not being afraid of failure. Clearly, sometimes you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off, but fear of failure should not be allowed to constrain either your thoughts or actions.

Lesson #6 – As Croker and his compatriots make their escape and begin to celebrate, their bus skids off the road high in a mountain pass and they are left hanging over the precipice with no obvious way of getting out. Don’t rest on your laurels with a job left unfinished. In Croker’s case the time for celebration would have been back safely at home. Similarly in business you need to see things through to the very end, even once the most challenging, exciting and enjoyable parts of a project are behind you. This is where good practice becomes embedded and forms a platform for further innovation.

Lesson #7 – In 2008, The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) invited the public to devise a successful conclusion to the cliff-hanger ending of the film to mark it’s 40th birthday in 2009. The promotion would also celebrate the creation in 1869, of the Periodic Table of Elements which includes element number 79, Au (gold). The RSC wanted to know how Croker’s team could have successfully extricated both themselves and the gold. As in the creative arts and in science, so too in business, the narrative you create through the work you do, the way you lead and what you create may leave a lasting legacy. Make it a compelling story.

So, there you have it – seven up-to-date and relevant lessons for business from a film made 30 years before the turn of the century. As Michael Caine never said: “Not a lot of people know that.”

You can read more about the RSC competition here:


  1. Simon – you’ve combined two of my great passions – The Italian Job and Business!
    Couldn’t agree with point 1 more – when I was applying to join the Army as an officer aged just 15 the Army Recruiting Major said something to me that I have never forgotten. “Ben, as an officer (leader) you don’t need to have all of the answers”.

    1. Thanks for commenting Ben. So many straightforward truths we ignore or forget.

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