Learning From Failure at the Oscars

By now, you’ve probably heard about the stunning failure at the Oscars ceremony, even if in Canada the Oscars play second fiddle to the Canadian Screen Awards.

To recap, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the award for Best Picture to La La Land. The producers of that film took the stage, celebrated, and made the obligatory endless thank-you speech… until they were interrupted and told that the award actually belonged to Moonlight.


Or as Plattville, Wisconsin library so brilliantly put it:

We can learn a lot about project failure from studying the video of the award presentation, especially the most important takeway: Most project failures are the result of a series of smaller failures, none of which, by themselves, would doom the project.

Few projects are sunk by a single failure. Sure, some are badly run, held together with chewing gum and baling wire, or project-managed with neither project skills nor management savvy. If a project depends on everything going right, well, things usually don’t.

But good project managers:

  • Identify risks: These things can go wrong.
  • Put contingency management into place: If this happens, we’ll do that.
  • Mitigate risks: That might happen, but because we’re also doing this, the impact will be lessened or minimized.

Where even good project managers fail is in thinking about cascading risks – a sequence of failures wherein any single failure does not threaten the project.

For example, the Titanic was constructed of high-grade steel, with a series of watertight compartments. If any one or two or even four compartments were holed and flooded, they could be sealed off, with no threat of sinking. On the other hand, the owners, and likely the captain, became so (over) confident in their vessel that they didn’t consider other failure issues:

  • They sailed well north of the safest line in order to make a record-fast maiden voyage, despite reports of icebergs in the area.
  • They didn’t keep a good watch despite a clear night. (Some analyses suggest the cold air directly above the berg they hit might have caused a haze that hid the berg from a distance.)
  • Recent iceberg sightings on their specific line of travel weren’t reported to the captain, and the Titanic didn’t reduce speed.
  • The report to the engine room of an iceberg ahead was couched in formal language that took precious time (and perhaps hid the urgency).
  • The engine room lacked clear instructions on how to react, and it appears that two or even three different processes were attempted at the same time, these processes interfering with each other – e.g., stopping the center propeller hurt steering capabilities in attempting to avoid the berg.
  • Scraping the side of the ship exposed a series of compartments to the underwater spur of the iceberg – and ultimately damaged five compartments.
  • It is now known that a smoldering fire in the coal bunkers had heated the starboard plating of the ship. There is speculation (but no way to prove or disprove) that the fire weakened the rivets binding the plates.

And of course there was the additional series of failures that led to the tremendous loss of life after impact, from insufficient lifeboats to locked doors to miscommunication with other ships in the area.

With that in mind, let’s look at the Oscars.

Here’s what was supposed to happen:

  • Each award was sealed in an envelope labeled with the name of the award.
  • Each side of the stage had a matching series of envelopes, so presenters could enter from either side.
  • The envelopes were in the custody of the two accountants who had tallied the votes – and who alone knew the winners.
  • After a presenter received an envelope, the accountant on the other side was to discard the duplicate.
  • The accountants had been instructed to come onstage should a presenter announce an incorrect “winner.”

In this case, the accountant on one side made a mistake and didn’t discard the duplicate… and somehow, with only one award remaining to cap off the evening, didn’t notice he or she was holding two envelopes.

Well, that’s okay. There are still two remaining checks:

  • The envelope is labeled with the name of the award.
  • The card in the envelope also contains the name of the award.

So how can it possibly go wrong?

In fact, the error was caught by Warren Beatty, an experienced presenter and former winner… and then events got away from him. In the video:

  • He scans the card. Uh, oh. The card reads, “Emma Stone, La La Land” (and in smaller print at the bottom, “Best Actress in a Leading Role”). The Best Actress award was the previous presentation. The card should show the name of the winning film, followed by a list of producers.
  • He knows something is wrong, and probably recognizes he has the wrong card. (At the time I’m writing this, he hasn’t weighed in, so I’m analyzing video and pictures – and some hints from friends in the industry.)
  • Long pause, as he tries to figure out what to do, with millions of eyes on him. Which leads to…
  • Faye Dunaway, knowing that these kinds of pauses are “death” in a performance, grabs the card. (She was supposed to announce the winner’s name in any case, after Beatty opened the envelope.) Trying to save the moment, she reads the name of the film before she can process the fact that the card doesn’t make sense in context.
  • (And then, neither accountant made the “save” before the La La Land producers began thanking everyone.)

Multiple failures. A sequence of failures, a cascade.

That’s how even good projects fail.

So what are the lessons here?

First, put in checks to catch errors. In other words, identify rather than obfuscate risk. Mitigate what you can. Put contingency plans in place. And educate the team about all of the above.

Second, put multiple checks into place where you can. Most of the time, they’ll catch errors. As a lawyer, you undoubtedly do so for your legal work, such as having a second person read contract language that’s become overfamiliar to you. Do the same for project work as well.

Third, if when something does go wrong, handle it gracefully.

That’s the final lesson from Oscar night. The producers of La La Land accepted that an error had occurred, didn’t whine or delay, and with considerable grace and no hesitation handed over the statues. (It didn’t hurt that Moonlight was recognized as a real achievement; they might have been more upset to see it go to the latest superhero sequel.)

In the end, no harm done by this particular failure, other than some embarrassment and a few good stories. (And at this writing the accountants are being blamed, because of course career accountants are expected to eagerly jump onstage in front of thousands of celebrities and millions of viewers to announce a mistake.)

Project failures will happen. Plan for them. Mitigate them. Plan your reactions to them.

And know that all the planning in the world cannot eliminate all possible errors.


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