Let’s Do a Failure Analysis of the Best Picture Debacle!


I’m not on the entertainment beat, but I was thinking yesterday about Sunday’s massive FUBAR at the Academy Awards from a failure analysis point of view. It’s remarkable the number of things that had to go wrong:

  • There had to be two sets of envelopes (one for each side of the stage). This never should have happened. Things should have been set up backstage so that presenters all go through a single point, receive their envelope, and then walk to whichever wing they’re going to enter from. This is pretty simple stuff, but for decades the Academy didn’t take the possibility of failure seriously enough to do it.
  • One of the accountants from PWC had to be a moron who spent so much time tweeting pictures from backstage that he lost track of his envelopes.
  • Warren Beatty, who plainly saw that he had the wrong award, had to be unwilling to embarrass himself by leaving the stage to get the right one.
  • Faye Dunaway had to be inattentive enough to take a quick glance at the card, see the words “La La Land” beneath Emma Stone’s name, and then read it off since it fit with everyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, both PWC accountants, who knew immediately that the wrong movie had been announced, had to be so flummoxed that they froze, instead of immediately alerting someone or even walking on stage themselves to tell the presenters they had it wrong.

This is an impressive list, and it encompasses an impressive number of modes of failure. You have denial. You have idiocy. You have fear of embarrassment. You have a disposition to accept conventional wisdom even in the face of obvious contrary evidence. And you have good old deer-in-headlights syndrome, which turns ordinary failures into spectacular calamities.

All of the first four had to go wrong for this to happen in the first place, and the fifth had to be added to turn it into a fiasco. You’d think the odds would be at least a million-to-one against. But that vastly underrates our human ability to screw up. It turns out it was more like a thousand-to-one.