This article appeared in The Huffington Post on Mar 7, 2017
I had written sometime back that 2016 was a year of the unexpected. It now seems as if the trend is continuing into 2017. Who would have thought that the venerable Oscars would feature a monumental goof-up, wherein the wrong film was announced as the winner in the Best Picture category? For many, the processes behind the Oscars ceremony symbolised nothing less than perfection. No one would have ever believed that the awards, managed by global accounting firm PwC ( PricewaterhouseCoopers), could go wrong. But the unexpected did happen. People around the world saw what happened! PwC assumed responsibility in a press release and has said the accountants responsible for the mix-up (Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz) will not be back. Investigations over what really went wrong are still on, but my objective here is not to speculate but to take lessons from what happened.
All work is a process
All work that is a done to achieve a certain objective is a process. Even if an activity seems to lack a process, if it has some output to be achieved at the end, it is a process. No one can doubt that PwC had solid processes to manage the entire event. Remember, they have been associated with the Oscars for the last 83 years.
The learning for business leaders is that when you install processes in an enterprise, don’t forget exceptions’ management.
However, the question that comes to my mind is, did they look at the “act of announcing the winners” as a process which comprises things that would need to happen before, during and after it? I don’t know. But what’s important for us to remember is that even activities that may not appear to be a process could actually a process. If an activity has an input, output and has a larger objective to accomplish it is indeed a process. In this case there are activities which happen in front and of us and those we don’t see. All of them are a part of a process.
In a business organization, activities such as management reviews, ideation, innovation, talent development, sales, strategic planning, product design etc. are processes even if they don’t look like it.
Exceptions are the rule
A lot has been written about PwC’s process to manage the award event. Only two partners supervise the counting process, know the winners and even memorise the names of 24 winners. The two partners carry the names of the winners and travel separately to the event just in case there are traffic jams. But going by what Brian Cullinan told the Huffington Post, the “process of managing in case a wrong name was announced” seemed to be unclear. Even if the process was there, he did not seem to know about it. The way the whole thing was managed after the botch-up on stage was also not very professional. Even if procedures were there to manages such a mistake as “announcing the wrong winner”, they were not followed. It was likely considered impossible that such a snafu could happen.
The learning for business leaders is that when you install processes in an enterprise, don’t forget exceptions’ management. And having installed processes to manage exceptions don’t let them hide in one corner because of disuse. Make sure employees know it and simulate it often.
Make critical workplaces sterile
Critical workplaces are areas in an organisation wherein errors can directly lead to health hazards, reputational damage, customer issues, financial loss, loss of life, brand tarnishing and so on. Examples of critical workplaces include an operation theatre in a hospital, the cockpit of an aeroplane, a trading floor in a bank etc.
PwC should have made a rule ensuring that the two partners handling the award event be barred from using their mobile devices or social media during the show.
In these workplaces there can be no distraction—just a few seconds of disruption could cause huge damage. These workplaces often have rules to prevent activities that distract the attention of employees. For instance, many of them don’t allow mobile phones. In the aviation world there’s the sterile cockpit rule wherein pilots are not allowed to do non-essential activities during critical phases of the flight. As research done by George Mason University reinforced, distraction impacts quality of work. During the Oscars event, PwC’s Brian Cullinan was busy tweeting backstage, which may have caused him to hand over the wrong envelope to the presenters. In hindsight, PwC should have made a rule ensuring that the two partners handling the award event be barred from using their mobile devices or social media during the show.
The learning for business leaders is that areas which are critical for business operations should be made sterile and bereft of all distractions.
Making senior leaders adapt to process thinking is not easy
As mentioned in the PwC press release, there were protocols to manage a botch-up as a “wrong announcement” but the same was not followed. Remember, the two individuals who were managing the event were not junior people but partners of the firm. This brings up the issue of how to make senior leaders adapt to process thinking. This can be a big challenge in organisations.
Even if you have an established process, regularly ascertain how it can fail and what steps you can take to mistake-proof it.
Have we not seen companies wherein the senior leaders will stand on stage and talk about processes, yet when it comes to them they fail to comply? This happens because they don’t realise the power and benefits of processes. One of the ways to ingrain process thinking is to make it a part of the organisation’s “way of working”. This has to be driven by the CEO, owned by the top management and repeatedly reinforced in all forums through talk and actions. And whenever there is a problem in the enterprise, they should tell their employees: “Go and ask the process.” This means to drill down and rectify the processes that are not working.
Make processes fail-safe
Whenever there are manual processes, they are prone to errors, irrespective of who is in charge. There’ve been arguments that the problem could have been avoided if the font or designs of the envelopes were made different—certainly this would reduce the likelihood of an error. Clearly, the takeaway for business leaders is even if you have an established process which is running for some time, regularly ascertain how it can fail and what steps you can take to mistake-proof it.