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
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.
Herb is a film critic.
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
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.