This Month’s Pattern *

19 Film Critics

Film critics are team members or corporate spectators who have determined that the value they add to the project lies in pointing out what has gone wrong or is going wrong, but who take no personal accountability to ensure that things go right.

You are in the final weeks before releasing your new system into production. Integration testing has been in full swing for some time, and the developers are fixing bugs as they come in. Release managers are going though their checklists of pre-ship activities to ensure that nothing has been overlooked. Then, at a readiness review, a new voice is heard. This is typically someone who has been associated with the project since its inception, but who has had little to say until now. We’ll call him Herb.

Herb is not all that pleased with the state of things. Herb feels that the product about to be shipped has missed a few key features. And the design reviews were not all they could have been. And the integration testing should have been far more rigorous. Given all of the problems he sees, Herb feels that shipping the system now may pose serious risks. He has enumerated the risks in an impressive PowerPoint deck that he has e-mailed to the world.

You consider Herb’s points, and you have to agree that some of them are valid. But your overall reaction is,“Why are you telling us this now? Where were you when we had time to address these issues?” Herb waves off your questions, offering no constructive suggestions for correcting what he sees as deficiencies, but reiterating his concerns about the way things have been handled.

Sometimes, on projects, film critics have real jobs and their criticism is more or less a hobby. Other times, they are actually chartered to be film critics by a manager who values this behavior. Either way, all film critics share one trait: They believe that they can be successful even if the project they’re on is a failure. They have, in effect, silently seceded from the project team.

Not all project critics are film critics. A lot of the difference is in the timing. People who feel accountable for the success of the project tend to speak up right away when they see that something is going wrong or could be done better. They come forward and say what they think, to whomever they believe can make a difference. They do so as soon as they can, because they know that time is always short and that corrective actions should be taken sooner rather than later. These people are not film critics; they are your fellow filmmakers. They know that they cannot succeed if the project fails, so they are taking matters into their own hands, every day, to increase the probability of your collective success. You may agree or disagree with their criticism, but you can see that they are working on the same film you are.

Pursuing the analogy between projects and films, we note that film critics don’t tend to weigh in until the film is complete, or so near to completion that there isn’t enough time left to take corrective action. It’s not that they actually want the project to fail; it’s more that they have come to believe that their own success is independent of the project’s success and has more to do with being seen as a keen observer of the obvious and an accurate predictor of the inevitable. They don’t necessarily realize it consciously, but they no longer care whether the project succeeds or not, as long as they are seen as having been right.

Why are some projects infested with film critics while others have few or none? There is only one reason: Some management cultures emphasize doing things right, while others emphasize not doing anything wrong. When managers are most concerned about not making mistakes, or at least not being seen as having made mistakes, they send obvious signals, both explicit and tacit, that catching people making mistakes is just as valuable to the organization as doing things right. Those people in the organization who have natural film-critic tendencies rise to these signals and engage in freelance film criticism on their current project to see how it will be received. If it is tolerated, or even rewarded, then film critics will multiply and accountability will diminish. Keep in mind that it is far easier to be a film critic than it is to be a filmmaker, that is, to be an accountable leader or team member. If the organization demonstrates that it values film critics, it shall have them.

Film criticism can exist at all levels in an organization, and it even can be institutionalized in a number of ways. The most common case is the unofficial film critic. This person already has a role on the project, though typically a peripheral one. Many film critics are in staff support roles, and from there, they can criticize multiple projects. In an especially diseased management culture, senior leaders may even charter an entire organization to act as a watchdog on teams building systems.

On project teams, film criticism is one example of a more general destructive pattern that we call goal detachment. Notice what enabled the film critic: the belief that there were multiple ways to succeed on this project. The project itself could succeed, of course. But the film critic (or the leader who chartered the critic) allowed that goal to be replaced by a related but independent goal: to accurately identify what’s going wrong on the project. It’s not that identifying deficiencies is a bad thing; it obviously is not. Goal detachment is destructive because people pursuing detached goals are only coincidentally working toward the success of the project; their efforts are just as likely to be inconsequential or even counterproductive.

* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.


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