“When I do good, nobody remembers; when I do bad, nobody forgets.”
This space will not use the name of the PwC partner who re-wrote the Best Picture finale of the February 26 Academy Awards ceremonies by handing the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. That poor bastard is going through enough, and no good is served by giving the search engine voyeurs any further satisfaction.
History’s list is lengthy of accomplished, good-faith professionals whose extended records of success are instantly dissolved into public notoriety:
- Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca became defined by Bobby Thompson’s walk-off home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,” as the Giants won the 1951 National League play-off.
- Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom was saddled thereafter with the loss of Liberty Bell on July 21, 1961 -- flooded and sunk when the explosive hatch bolts blew on landing.
- Age 19, Fred Merkle became forever “Bonehead” for his failure to tag second base and the Giants’ resulting loss to the Cubs on September 23, 1908.
- Aviator Douglas Corrigan may well have been deliberate in his 1938 solo flight from Brooklyn to Ireland, but the sobriquet “Wrongway” was applied and stuck.
Up through the ranks, a twenty-year partner with firm-wide leadership at PwC – now to be known as the guy who had an inopportune Twitter moment. It is seriously unfortunate that if past patterns hold, his career clock is ticking -- nor would it be a great surprise if he were shortly to crawl under the team bus rather than wait at risk of being thrown there.
Unfortunate, because the meticulous methodology by which PwC has for decades gathered and counted and protected the identity of the Oscar winners – including the ego-boost of blinging up and marching the briefcases down the glamorous red carpet -- was wholly irrelevant in the few seconds that demonstrated once again that any system designed and run by fallible human beings has a non-zero chance of catastrophic failure.
Which means that – whatever his own conduct -- the potential for failure was inherent and unsolved at the firm’s level of design and execution.
Behavioral psychologists going back to the pioneering work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s have laid out the necessity of failure-mitigating techniques to deal specifically with the human factor – mainly by acknowledging explicitly and dealing with the inevitability of sub-optimal individual actions.
As the students in my class in Risk Management could design as a classroom exercise – the unmanaged risk of an envelope switch starts with the basic failure to recognize that the messenger should be prevented from access to more than one at a time.
“Take the one correct envelope in hand, and pass it to the ageing and near-sighted former movie idol” – who by the way was demonstrably useless as a fail-safe or means of quality control.
For which, secure and control each last-used envelope, before moving on to the next award. Get both copies out of reach and out of harm’s way. Keep the courier from touching any but the next one in the queue -- perhaps clamping a controlling minder to his elbow off-stage.
Business and industrial processes provide examples of such safety checks – physical distance between machinery switches, forcing an operator to take two separate actions to activate a hydraulic press or a cutting tool; “dead-man” cut-offs to disable a run-away vehicle; assembly lines and hospital surgeries and nuclear missile silos with dual controls to prevent a solo mishap.
Withal, there may be three sources of comfort for PwC’s sorry point man in this firm-based debacle:
First, because the delivery of audit services to the world’s large companies is completely dominated by the Big Four -- among which, with their 2016 global revenues either side of $ 36 billion, PwC vies with Deloitte as the largest -- the likelihood of negative, reputation-driven impact is constrained by the absence of client choice. And as PwC’s threatening exposures are paralleled among both the other Big Three and their smaller colleagues, that would caution against any exercise of competitive schandenfreude. In other words, to those actually choosing among the cartel of providers, the Oscars fubar is already old news.
Second, the leader of PwC’s engagement for the Academy would not be listed on the PCAOB’s new Form AP, which identifies lead partners only on the audits of US public companies.
That exercise, in its first year, is of no use in spotting potential performance issues with large-firm personnel other than the lead partner – both because of the mobility of partners among various functions and also because of the team nature of large-company engagements – and so has yet to demonstrate any value.
And third, in any event, enjoying the handsome returns of a senior partner, when average annual Big Four partner profits are running well above $ 1 million, should cushion whatever personal impact may be imposed by the lifetime label, “Moonlight.”
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