Mistakes happen. They aren’t usually quite so public as the Oscars debacle but they are often just as devastating for the people and organisations concerned.
In this case, the accountancy firm’s 83 years-long contract with the Oscars organisers was immediately threatened and the two PWC partners needed police protection as a direct result of the scandal. All because the wrong envelope was handed to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the finale of this year’s Oscars when the Best Picture award was announced.
But this isn’t the first time that this has happened. A trawl through winners and losers of previous events from Miss Universe to the Oscars as long ago as 1964, show that this year’s blunder isn’t as unique as you might think. Mistakes happen in all organisations, in all sectors, throughout the world.
What causes mistakes?
Why do mistakes, like giving out the wrong envelope at the awards ceremony, happen? Why, in the case of one of our clients, did a lawyer who was about to go into court, get handed the wrong bundle of papers? Let’s focus on two key reasons: distraction and not focusing on the essentials.
As human beings, we are hard-wired to be distractible. We have evolved over millions of years as a species and have only survived by being very alert to danger and the challenges surrounding us. We instantly pick up movement in our peripheral vision. Our five senses make us aware of our environment and we notice things quickly, even when we don’t intend to. Distractions stop us from focusing on the task we need to be concentrating on.
In the excitement of the Oscars, it appears that the PWC partner, who was responsible for handing Warren Beatty the WRONG envelope, was distracted by the glitz and excitement of the evening. Just moments before the Best Picture Oscar was to be announced, he was seen taking photographs of celebrities on his smartphone. His mindset was that the hard work had been done, the awards bit of the evening was nearly over and he was having fun! He wasn’t, as we would call it, ‘SuperConcentrating’ to the end of his task.
Focusing on the essentials
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of a task, or by the sheer number of different things that need to be done, sometimes under a strict deadline. Stress is certainly a cause of mistakes although positive time pressure can be helpful in improving concentration levels and therefore accuracy. Back at the Oscars, it wasn’t that the envelope with the correct winner hadn’t been prepared, it was that the wrong envelope was used at the crucial moment on stage. And here we come to ‘focusing on the essentials’. When reviewing, or checking work, (and ‘checking’ is a whole other area of our work in accuracy) it’s important to ask yourself the question, ‘What absolutely MUST be right here?’ To prevent mistakes with big consequences you must make sure the essentials are correct. So, if I’d been running the Oscars, I would have made absolutely certain that we had the right envelope, given to the right person, at the right time. On each and every occasion. From the first to the last.
We often come across organisations that have made mistakes with contracts. And that can be very expensive indeed. Not to mention embarrassing. What are the key pieces of data that need to be correct? Or when preparing a quotation for a customer, what elements of the estimate must be correct? From the email address you’re sending it to, through to the price and delivery date quoted, what could be wrong? We know of marketing folk who have printed the wrong telephone number on their literature. We know of an HR team which managed to lose the resignation letter of one of their employees - meaning that they can’t remove the individual from their payroll until they persuade her to write a second letter of resignation!
How to prevent these kinds of mistakes
Preventing mistakes at work is about identifying why mistakes have happened and addressing the causes of those mistakes. It’s about being ‘present-minded’ and fully aware of the consequences of error. By developing a working environment that is error-resistant you encourage people to be alert to the possibility of error and fully engaged in their task. Enabling people to use their brains to think clearly about what they are doing means not over simplifying tasks and helping them to respond appropriately whenever an error does occur. The PWC accountants at the Oscars were initially stunned when the mistake that they had caused, happened. At first, people didn’t know how to react and the ensuing scene was described as ‘shambolic’, making a bad situation even worse.
Be newsworthy for all the right reasons
For days after the mix-up at the Oscars this year, people were still making jokes about the mistake. It was still in the news. And it will take years for PWC to live this down. If your aim is to attract publicity, you want people to be talking about you for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones. So, make no mistake - it pays to train your people in accuracy skills!
Please visit our webpage about our one-day workshop and download the first chapter of our book on ‘Preventing Mistakes at Work’.
Accuracy Asides is the name of our accuracy blog
You get to hear about our latest accuracy course results, the real-life 'bloomers' which come to our attention and all the latest news and juicy gossip about errors! We share accuracy tips and advice too.
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