What To Do When Things Go Wrong
This review first ran in the June 22 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
There are 80,000 souls in the stands.
More than a billion people are watching worldwide.
You’re doing a media interview.
And suddenly the lights go out.
This was the crisis facing Frank Supovitz just over a minute into the second half of the 2013 Superbowl in New Orleans. Supovitz was the senior vice president of events for the National Football League and ringleader of the planet’s biggest sporting event.
“It was not a time for guesswork,” says Armen Keteyian who was interviewing Supovitz for 60 Minutes Sports when the partial power failure hit. “What our crew witnessed (and captured on video) was a cool, collected leader assessing information. As the delay stretched into what would become 34 of the most surreal minutes in NFL history, Frank made one clear-eyed decision after another.”
Supovitz, an award-winning event producer, applied five principles during the “Blackout Bowl” that he’s outlined in his book What To Do When Things Go Wrong.
“I guarantee that if nothing has gone seriously wrong for you at least once so far, something is going to go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong sometime, somewhere and somehow despite your very best intentions, your painstaking and expert planning, and your unfailingly optimistic worldview,” says Supovitz.
“And when you get past the first thing that goes terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong, guess what? There’s another crisis coming, and when it arrives things will look dark all over again, and very possibly worse. And I’m an optimist.”
Here’s how Supovitz mitigated risk and expertly managed crises during his 30-plus years leading major sports and entertainment events.
1. Imagine how your event or project will play out in a perfect world and then picture everything that can go wrong. “Apply a dark and fertile imagination to visualize as many potential threats to our success as possible. Then we can spend the time, money and energy to keep all those monsters securely under the bed.”
2. Prepare by building solutions to potential crises into your work plan. Hope is not a strategy, says Supovitz. Instead, you need a plan b, c and d. “Effective project leaders invest time and talent developing contingency plans that they truly hope, like an insurance policy, will turn out to be a colossal waste of time. But, having these plans can prove invaluable if something goes wrong and you need to work quickly to activate one or more of the plans.”
3. Execute your plan and stay vigilant for all contingencies.
4. Respond effectively when things go off the rails. “Try to resist the temptation to act too quickly, without regard to how your response may affect the outcome in other areas. That doesn’t mean don’t act fact. Just act fast enough to keep things from getting worse, but not so fast you end up making things worse.”
5. Evaluate what happened and how you responded. Postmortems are key, as Supovitz points out that we learn more from things that go wrong than from those that go right. Of course, it’s always preferable to learn from the mistakes of others.
So when things go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong with your next project or event, remember Frank Supovitz and the 2013 Superbowl. Together with a quick-thinking team of well-prepared professionals, Supovitz kept calm, carried on and saved the Superbowl from a premature end.
No one was injured when the Superdome went dark. Play resumed after a 34-minute delay. Oreo put out a dunk in the dark tweet that ranks among the all-time great real-time marketing moves and cost nowhere near a Superbowl ad. And the NFL set a Superbowl record for concession stand beer sales during the blackout.
Jay Robb serves as manager of communications for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.