The Oscars - What Really Went Wrong?

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I only saw the news reports of the chaos at the Oscars ceremony but, as more was revealed, my feelings have gradually changed from amusement, through incredulity, until I finally reached anger when it was announced that the accountant from PwC, who gave the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty, was to be punished for his error. When something like this goes wrong, it is seldom the fault of one person so playing the blame game, as the Academy seems to be playing is generally a waste of time. I have spent many years running Lessons Learned workshops with project teams, either at the end of a project or when something went badly wrong during a project. The most effective workshops are those where the approach is “don’t look for someone to blame, find something to fix”. By taking a “who was at fault” approach, the Academy have missed a chance to fix the underlying problems.

So what happened?

There were duplicate sets of cards with the names of the winners. In order to allow the presenters to walk on from either side of the stage, one set was held at each side of the stage. As the presenter went on stage, an accountant from PwC handed them the appropriate card and they went on and read the card. That was what was supposed to happen. What actually happened was that Leonardo DiCaprio was given the Best Actress card from one of the sets, announced Emma Stone as winner and gave her the card. When Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway went on to announce the Best Picture, instead of being given the correct envelope they were given the duplicate copy of the Best Actress card.

So the accountant was at fault?

Why is it unreasonable to blame the accountant that handed them the wrong card?

 1)      There were two sets of cards with apparently no clear procedure for ensuring that, once a card was used from one side of the stage, the card on the other side could not then be handed to a presenter.

2)      The envelopes were clearly labelled with the name of the award. It should have been clear to the presenter that they had been handed the wrong envelope.

3)      Warren Beatty thought there was something wrong with the card and that was the reason he delayed the announcement. There didn't seem to be any procedure for him to flag that there was a problem.

4)      Faye Dunaway, along with most of the audience, thought that Beatty was just playing for effect, took the card and read out the name of the film, without reading the rest of the card.

5)      While the name of the winner is in large type, the name of the award is only in small type, at the bottom of the card (see here).

So, who was to blame?

So, apart from the error itself, there were at least five points at which the situation could have been avoided. So, who was to blame? The person who designed a process where it was possible for the wrong card to be handed to a presenter? The person who signed off on that process? The accountant for handing the wrong card to Beatty? Beatty for not checking that he had been given the right envelope? Beatty for not taking definite action when he recognised that there was a problem? Dunaway for assuming that Beatty was joking about and reading the film’s name without reading the rest of the card? The person who designed the card so that the film’s name was so much more prominent than the name of the award? There were many opportunities to prevent the error, or prevent it from becoming the disaster that it did. But we are asking the wrong question, as the Academy appears to have done. We should not ask “Who was at fault?”, we should ask “What can we fix?”. In looking for someone to blame, the Academy is in danger of missing many opportunities to make sure it cannot happen again.

You could argue that hindsight is all very well and that the problems could not have been predicted, and that is possibly true. But the whole purpose of a Lessons Learned exercise is to use that 20/20 vision hindsight to find what needs to be fixed and put better procedures in place. Clearly record all procedures, carry out risk analysis and put risk response plans in place. By trying to put the blame in one place, the Academy risks missing several opportunities to improve their system.

So what really happened at the Oscars?

An opportunity to improve the project management of these events was thrown away.

What about your company and your projects?

When things go wrong which side is your investigation on – “Look for someone to blame” or “Find something to fix”. If it is the former, then you are missing many, many opportunities to improve your performance. Sad.

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