Yunkai Zhou Co-founder & CTO,
Published on March 02, 2017
Envelopegate: A High-Tech Perspective on The Oscars
This past Sunday, we all witnessed Envelopegate; watching in awe as the winner for Best Picture was wrongly announced: “La La Land,” instead of “Moonlight.”
While what happened was streamed live to millions of people, what caused it to happen was less obvious, and only started to surface in the days afterwards. As I learned each new detail, I was struck by how similar this kind of mishap is in Tech companies on a daily basis.
Before The Oscars, only two people in the entire world knew the winners, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz. They counted all the votes, put the winners into envelopes, with 2 identical sets in 2 briefcases. During the ceremony, each of them stood on one side of the stage, and handed the envelope to the presenters, if the presenters walked from that side of the stage.
In this case, Brian handed the wrong envelope (the Best Actress in a Leading Role envelope) to the presenters for Best Picture, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Warren opened the envelope, noticed “Emma Stone, La La Land”, and hesitated. “Emma Stone” shouldn’t be on it. He tried to look into the envelope, multiple times. Everyone thought he was just being funny. He showed the card to Faye and she said “Just announce it.” “La La Land”.
Shocked, the entire La La Land cast and crew went on stage, hugs, tears, speeches at the ready; a pretty normal celebration scene.
Then we saw people with headphones walk onto the stage. Another host walked on the stage. Suddenly, not so normal but still not a big deal.
Then one of the La La Land producers grabs the microphone and says: “This is a mistake. The real winner is Moonlight.” And we’re all thinking “he’s gotta be joking.”
Nope. It’s not a joke. It was a mistake. The mistake was corrected and now the Moonlight crew walked up to the stage as excited and moved as they were shocked and in extreme disbelief. Everyone from La La Land slowly walked off stage, as flabbergasted as we all were in that moment. All of us; the entire world observed, in disbelief.
Strangely enough, simple mistakes with widespread impact - like Envelopegate, are also very common in the Tech industry. Someone pushes a wrong line of code to production. The service goes down; and the entire world takes notice and is affected.
Rule #2: FIX IT FAST
Often times, a crisis starts before people take notice, but it certainly gets escalated once it is discovered. Once it starts, however, ignore everything else, and focus on ending the crisis. There is no time for blame or finding out who’s responsible. Ending a crisis is all about fixing the problem as soon as humanly possible.
Back to the Oscars. Three things happened:
  1. Brian noticed the announcement was incorrect. He whispered to the stage manager right next to him. (There is more to this point, but we will come back to it later.)
  2. The stage manager made a quick decision that if he communicated this to the show producer, and let the producer make the decision what to do, the entire ceremony could have ended by then, and the problem would be even bigger. Therefore, he walked on to the stage, and started telling the host and La La Land crew that there was a mistake.
  3. The La La Land producer immediately announced Moonlight was the actual winner.
The crisis ended here. It took less than 2 minutes.
If none of the above three had happened, the show would have ended with the entire world thinking La La Land won. It would have been a much bigger problem to correct. The sooner a crisis ends, the easier it is to deal with the fallout.
Rule #3: DIG DEEP
You can get dizzy thinking of all of the things you can analyze for what caused the crisis in the first place.
Let’s review what contributed to Envelopegate at the Oscars:
  • There are 2 envelopes for each category. This makes it more likely the other envelope of the same category to be presented a second time. What if they only keep 1 set of the envelopes during the show?
  • The 2 accountants are standing at different entrances to the stage. What if they only used 1 entrance? If they want to use 2 entrances, could they make all presenters go to the same backstage point?
  • The envelope design could be more clear of what category this is, both on the envelope and on the winner card. Typeface matters.
  • The process could be improved to have the presenters always double check the category being correct before walking onto the stage.
  • Is it really necessary to stick to the secrecy rule of only these 2 accountants know before-hand?
I am not suggesting we have to change everything that contributed to the cause. For example, it seems fairly obvious that:
  • The Oscars will likely keep the secrecy policy to maintain brand, reputation, and excitement.
  • From an operations perspective, probably infeasible to have the two accountants stand in one spot in backstage, while presenters still go to different sides of the stage entrance.
What I am suggesting the Oscars do is:
  • Change the envelope design to make the category more visually clear. For example, bigger font, and with a differentiating image.
    • This is a very low-cost change.
  • Change the handoff process so that the presenters must check the envelope category before walking to the stage.
    • This is a low-cost change.
  • Change the winner card within envelope to be more visually clear about the category.
    • This is a low-cost change.
  • Include a process to discard the other card in the 2-accountant-at-different-side process. For example, when presenters walk on side A and take the envelope for category X, the accountant on side B should remove the envelope for category X to a different place, so that there’s reduced chance of category X envelope being given to later presenters.
    • This is a medium-cost change. Operationally, there are other consequences to make sure this step of removing unused envelopes does not accidentally remove envelopes for to-be-announced categories.
There are other changes I can suggest, but let me stop here since ultimately The Academy has a better assessment of what’s feasible and what’s cost-efficient.
The process of “digging deep” after a crisis, in the Tech industry, is known as a postmortem. You identify what happened, what went right and what went wrong. You analyze what caused it to happen, and decide what changes to make and what not to make to prevent this from happening again. Failure doesn’t feel good, but when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. You learn and improve the failure. Besides, doesn’t everybody like lemonade?
Anything can happen. You might, unexpectedly find yourself in a crisis at a moment’s notice. How you handle these unexpected moments matters a lot for your career success. Let me explain.
Now let’s look back to what happened to the two accountants. It turns out there was a pre-defined procedure to deal with mistaken announcements. They are supposed to have memorized all the winners, and in the event a wrong winner is announced, they are supposed to go on the stage and correct it before the recipient reaches the mic. They rehearsed this process before the show.
However, the procedure didn’t go as planned. They notified the stage manager of the problem (good), but they both didn’t want to go on stage to stop the problem. The stage manager requested them multiple times to go on stage, but neither of them did.
They are now both banned from future Oscars, not because of the mistake, but because they failed to handle the mistake as they were supposed to. (Source: BBC)
The stage manager had to go on stage and stop the disaster. It was unplanned but he did. He took on a role without being asked and made a decision not to let things get worse. He effectively handled the situation and saved further escalation. We don’t know what will happen to him yet, but I expect a promotion and possibly a bigger role down the line.
The La La Land crew was also very gracious. What they did at that moment impressed a lot of people. They lost an award, and were probably quite embarrassed. But I’m sure they will be rewarded for their grace and ability to handle surprises, and I won’t be surprised if some movie studios / script writers take note to work with them in the future.
Rule #5: EXPECT (and PREPARE) for the UNEXPECTED
If crisis always happens when you are unprepared, what can you do? Nothing but act in the moment. The right answer, on the other hand, is to prepare yourself - mentally and operationally. Make drills think through various situations: “if this happened, what would I do? I would…”
I have found such mental exercises to be very useful in my career; thinking through (and learning from) what happened to others by asking myself how I might handle the situation. It doesn’t take much effort but has been great preparation.
But more importantly, when the crisis happens, make sure to act as you planned. Don’t do what the 2 accountants did and go off-script. They rehearsed what they would do if a mistaken announcement was made, but they didn’t follow protocol when it actually happened.
The more you practice and prepare for the unexpected, when it actually happens you will be able to handle yourself and the situation in a more effective way. Others around you will take note, and have more confidence in you, which later often translates to bigger responsibilities. Most leaders I have observed in my career have this amazing ability to deal with crises with calm and determination. While determined to get the problem fixed, they also bring with them a sense of calm so that the team handling the crisis doesn’t panic. People tend to make poor decisions in panic mode so remaining calm helps everyone by promoting better judgment during crisis moments.
In addition to an individual leader, the team that handles the crises correctly also plays a huge role. They provide support for each other during the crisis. They help each other to identify areas for improvement and eventually implement improvements to the system or service. When teams learn together and learn to work well together during moments of stress, it ·always results in tighter intra-team bonding.
A strong leader or a strong team may not know when a crises will arise, but they are prepared and know that when it happens, they are ready.

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