Whiplash: outrageously dramatic, redemptive and enthusiastic

I had the privilege of seeing Whiplash at the BFI’s London Film Festival last October. (It was shown at the Accenture gala, renowned for the quality of its films choices). Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is now on general release in the UK. It is a film with an extraordinary reputation – a reputation that turns out to be completely deserved. Indeed, Whiplash generated a rare standing ovation during the London festival in the vast cathedral space of the Leicester Square Odeon.

The movie is a mash-up of film genres that takes the audience on an emotional and stretching journey. The ending in particular is outrageously redemptive and enthusiastic, revolving around a confrontation between the main characters described purely through musical performance.

The story starts with 19-year old Andrew Neiman (played with a smouldering monomania by Miles Teller). Neiman is a young drummer who wins a place at the Shaffer Conservatory, a major music academy in New York. His ambition is to become one of the “greats” in jazz drumming, Buddy Rich being the example used in the film. Indeed, the film’s name comes from a complex jazz classics, which used in a key musical sequence.

Neiman soon encounters a legendary conductor and teacher called Terence Fletcher. In conventional terms, Fletcher is the villain of the film, although he retains a certain brute-force charm throughout. He is played with psychopathic, wiry and wild-eyed perfection by JK Simmons. Fletcher starts by projecting that charm, initially with elegance, but he turns out to be a talented, inspiring and abusive monster who humiliates the young people in his band, delivering badass and disturbingly funny insults with real gusto. There are hints of a prior student having committed suicide under pressure. The engine of the plot is the tension that develops between Neiman and Fletcher.

With this premise the film moves far away from the cinematic conventions around music or pupil-teacher relationships. It adds dramatic and stylistic conventions from film noir, the tensest of legal dramas, crime thrillers and war movies. It is delightfully old-fashioned in its melodramatic tone.

As a result, the film itself becomes a master class in technique and performance from the ensemble of director, film crew and actors. It is an extended riff on film conventions that is aimed to dazzle. Variety’s reviewer Peter Debruge wrote that the film “demolishes the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena.” Close your eyes and you know it should seem ludicrous – life is not this dramatic. But open them and you enter a bargain with the director and actors with little hesitation. This is a story that demands to be followed.

As the film develops, Neiman is inspired – almost demonically possessed – by Fletcher and spends every waking moment rehearsing and practicising, until there is blood on his hands. He looses his girl friend, and brutally competes with other drummers in Fletcher’s orbit.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the two fall out and Fletcher dismisses Neiman, before his own troubles with the academy over the intensity of his abusive style. But somehow the plot engineers a reunion at a major concert, which turns out to be a ploy to humiliate Neiman. However,  Neiman grits metaphorical teeth, and proves himself in a performance of the jazz classic caravan, perfectly assembled via images related to the music, and shots of the faces of the actors. Somehow, with no dialogue whatsoever, the film resolves the tension between the two protagonists. It is easy to applaud.

The film itself possesses an inspiring history of hard effort and perseverance. The original script was featured in the 2012 “Black List” of the best motion picture screenplays that have not yet been produced. Chazelle then turned 15 pages of the screenplay into a short film that was noticed, then acclaimed at the Sundance festival in 2013. The full film was made finally for a small budget of just over $3 million. It has won and been nominated for a dazzling array of awards.

The bottom line is this. Whiplash is a wonderful piece of film making that moves and inspires the audience. It should be in the top five of films to see this year for any true cinema buff. And you will leave the cinema uplifted. Enjoy.

Failure is an Option

Things will always go wrong, but excellent preparation and strong leadership can turn failure into a kind of success.

The story of Apollo13 is a parable of gritty resolve, technology excellence, calm heroism and teamwork. For anyone focused on leadership, operations and program management it is absolutely the purest of inspirations.

The film of Apollo 13 centres around the phrase Failure is Not an Option,” invented post the original drama in a conversation between Jerry Bostick – one of the great Apollo flight controllers – and the filmmakers. It summarises a key part of the culture of Apollo era NASA, and it has found its way onto the walls or desks of many a leader’s office. It is part of the DNA of modern business culture, and of any sizeable delivery project.

Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module
Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module

Lessons from the Space Program

But one of the reasons that the crew was recovered was this: throughout its history, NASA and mission control knew that failure was precisely an option, and they designed, built and tested to deal with that simple truth. The spacecraft systems had – where physically possible – redundancy. The use of a Lunar Module as a lifeboat had already been examined and analyzed before Apollo 13. In the end, a old manufacturing defect caused an electrical failure with almost catastrophic consequences. It was precisely because Mission Control was used to dealing with issues that Apollo 13 became what has been called a “successful failure” and “NASA’s finest hour.”

The ability to respond like this was hard earned. The Gemini program – sandwiched between the first tentative manned flights of Mercury, and the Apollo program that got to the moon – was designed to test the technologies and control mechanisms needed for deep space. It was a very deliberate series of steps. Almost everything that could go wrong did: fuel cells broke, an errant thruster meant that Gemini 8 was almost lost, rendezvous and docking took many attempts to get right and space walks (EVAs in NASA speak) proved much harder than anybody was expecting. And then the Apollo 1 fire – where three astronauts were actually lost on the launch pad – created a period of deep introspection, followed by much redesign and learning. In 18 months, the spacecraft was fundamentally re-engineered. The final step towards Apollo was the hardest.

But, after less than a decade of hard, hard work – NASA systems worked at a standard almost unique in human achievement.

So, with near infinite planning and rehearsal, NASA could handle issues and error with a speed and a confidence that is still remarkable. Through preparation, failure could be turned into success.

Challenges of a Life More Ordinary

All of us have faced challenges of a lesser kind in our careers. I was once responsible for a major software platform that showed real, but occasional and obscure issues the moment it went into production, expensively tested. We put together an extraordinary SWAT team. The problem seemed to be data driven, and software related and simply embarrassing. I nick-named it Freddie, after the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It turned out to be a physical issue in wiring – which was hugely surprising and easily fixed. The software platform worked perfectly once that was resolved.

Another example: In the early days of Accenture’s India delivery centres, we had planned for redundancy and were using two major cables for data to and from the US and Europe. But although they were many kilometres apart, both went through the Mediterranean. A mighty Algerian earthquake brought great sadness to North Africa, and broke both cables. We scrambled, improvised, maintained client services, and then bought additional capacity in the Pacific. We now had a network on which the sun never set. It was a lesson in what resilience and risk management really means.

Soon enough, and much more often than not, we learnt to handle most failures and problems with fluency.  In the Accenture Global Delivery network we developed tiered recovery plans that could handle challenges with individual projects, buildings, and cities. So we were able to handle problems that – at scale – happen frequently. These included transport issues, point technology failures, political actions and much more – all without missing a single beat. Our two priorities were firstly people’s safety and well being,  and secondly client service, always in that order.

Technology – New Tools and New Risks

As technology develops, there are new tools but also new risks. On the benefit side, the Cloud brings tremendous, generally reliable compute power at increasingly low cost. Someone else has thought through service levels and availability, and invested in gigantic industrialized data centres. The cloud’s elasticity also allows smart users to side step common capacity issues during peak usage. These are huge benefits we have only just started to understand.

But even the most reliable of cloud services will suffer rare failures, and at some point a major front-page incident is inevitable. The world of hybrid clouds also brings new points of integration, and interfaces are where things often break. And agile, continuous delivery approaches means that the work of different teams must often come together quickly and – hopefully – reliably.

The recent Sony incident shows – in hugely dramatic ways – the particular risks around security and data. Our technology model has moved from programs on computers to services running in a hybrid and open world of Web and data centre. The Web reflects the overall personality of the human race – light and dark – and we have only just begun to see the long-term consequences of that in digital commerce.

Turning Failures into Success

What follows is my own summary view of those key steps required to handle the inevitably of challenges and problems. It is necessarily short.

1. Develop a Delivery Culture – Based on accountability, competence and a desire for peerless delivery and client service. Above all, there needs to be an acknowledgement that leadership and management are about both vision and managing and avoiding issues. Create plans, and then be prepared to manage the issues.

2. Understand Your Responsibilities – They will always be greater in number that you think. Some of them are general, often obvious and enshrined in law – if you employ people, handle data about humans, work in the US, work in Europe, work in India and work across borders you are surrounded by regulations. Equally importantly, the expectations with your business users or clients need to be set and mutually understood – there are many problems caused by costing one service level, and selling another. Solving a service problem might take hours or days. Solving a problem with expectations and contracts may be the work of months and years.

3. Architect and Design – Business processes and use cases (and indeed users!) need to account for failure modes. The design for technical architectures must acknowledge and deal with component and service failures – and they must be able to recover. As discussed above, cloud services can solve resilience issues by offering the benefits of large-scale, industrialised supply, but they also bring new risks around integration between old and new. Cloud brings new management challenges.

4. Automate – Automation (properly designed, properly tested) can be your friend. Automated recovery and security scripts are much less error prone than those done by people under stress. There are many automated tools and services that can help test and assess your security environment. Automated configuration management brings formal traceability – essential for the highest levels of reliability. Automated regression testing is a great tool to reduce the costs of testing in the longer term.

5. Test – Test for failure modes in both software and business process. Test at points of integration. Test around service and service failures. Test at, and beyond, a system’s capacity limits. Test security. Test recovery. Test testing.

6. Plan for Problems – Introduce a relevant level of risk management. Create plans for business continuity across technology systems and business processes. Understand what happens if a system fails, but also what happens if your team can’t get to the office, or a client declares a security issue.

7. Rehearse Invest in regular rehearsals of problem handling and recovery. Include a robust process for debriefing.

8. Anticipate and Gather Intelligence – For any undertaking of significance, understand potential issues and risks. Larger organisations will need to understand emerging security issues – from the small, technical and specific to more abstract global threats. Truly global organisations will need to sometimes understand patterns of weather – for example: to determine if transport systems are at threat. (I even once developed personal expertise in seismic science and volcanism.)

9. Respond – But finally acknowledge that there will be major issues that will happen, and such issues will often be unexpected. So, a team must focus on:

  • Simply accepting accountability, focusing on resolution and accepting the short-term personal consequences. It is what you are paid for.
  • Setting-up a management structure for the crisis, and trigger relevant business continuity plans
  • Setting up an expert SWAT team, including what is needed from suppliers.
  • How to report diagnosis and resolution – be accurate, be simple, avoid false optimism and be frequent
  • How to communicate with stakeholders in a way that balances information flow and the need for a core team to focus on resolution
  • How to handle media, if you are providing a public service
  • And after the problem is solved and the coffee machine is temporarily retired, how does the team learn

And finally a Toast …

In previous articles, I have acknowledged the Masters of Delivery I have come across in my varied career.

In this domain covered by this article, I have worked with people in roles such as“Global Asset Protection”, “Chief Information Security Officer” and teams across the world responsible for business continuity, security and engineering reliable cloud services. They work on the kind of activity that often goes unacknowledged when things go well – but in the emerging distributed and open future technology world, they are all essential. To me, these are unsung “Masters of Delivery.” Given this is the start of 2015, let’s raise a virtual glass in celebration of their work. We all benefit by it.

Keith Haviland

This is a longer version of an article originally posted on linkedin.  Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

30 Alternative Quotes on Success to Celebrate New Year, 2015

A large part of the Western workforce will be returning to work, after celebrating New Year. It’s a time of New Year’s resolutions, and general thinking about renewal and the future. Or at least exercise.

And there seems to be no shortage of Internet-seved inspirational quotes and messages for this New Year of 2015 – as part of the vast, modern literature on self-improvement and leadership excellence. Much of this is based on the premise that success is ultimately about self-belief.

This actually represents a very old trade in ideas. Virgil was a 1st century BC Roman poet who completes with Shakespeare for the times he is quoted. One quote is “Possunt quia posse videntur,” which roughly translates as “They can, because they believe they can.”

But success is more than about denying doubt, it is about preparation, planning, effort and working with other people. It is managing issues and dealing with error. So, to celebrate the arrival 2015, I have assembled a few alternative quotes on success and leadership for the year, some with a little edge, and all hopefully a little truth.

Oh, and a Happy and Very Successful New Year to you all.

1. Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm – Winston Churchill

2. As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information. – Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli

3. Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value. – Albert Einstein

4. I don’t look to jump over seven-foot bars; I look around for one-foot bars that I can step over. – Warren Buffett, investor

5. Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius

6. The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom. – George S. Patton

George S. Patton
George S. Patton

7. Success is dependent on effort. – Sophocles

8. The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

9. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to appreciate – and really value – the other attributes that define a company’s success beyond the P&L: great leadership, long-term financial strength, ethical business practices, evolving business strategies, sound governance, powerful brands, values-based decision-making. – Ursula Burns

Ursla Burns
Ursla Burns

10.Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles. – Jawaharlal Nehru

11. Never was anything great achieved without danger. – Niccolo Machiavelli

12. Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.- Chris Hadfield, astronaut

13. Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. – Chris Hadfield, astronaut

14. Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference. – Nolan Bushnell

15. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours. – Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

16. First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end. – Aristotle


17. Expect problems and eat them for breakfast. – Alfred A. Montapert

18. Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision. – Peter F. Trucker

19. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. – Steve Jobs

20. People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things. – Edmund Hillary

21. To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence. –Mark Twain

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

22.We had risen to probably one of the greatest challenges in history, put a man on the moon in the decade. We’d created incredible technologies. But what was most important, we’d created the teams, what I call the human factor. People who were energized by a mission. – Gene Kranz, Flight Director

23. There are three things that matter. The first is competence — just being good at what you do, whatever it is, and focusing on the job you have, not on the job you think you want to have. The second one is confidence. People want to know what you think. So you have to have enough desirable self-confidence to articulate a point of view. The third thing is caring. Nothing today is about one individual. This is all about the team, and in the end, this is about giving a damn about your customers, your company, the people around you, and recognizing that the people around you are the ones who make you look good. – Bill Green, former Accenture CEO

24. I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse. –Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale

25. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. – Chinese Proverb

26. The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow –Rupert Murdoch

27. A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others see — Leroy Emis

28. The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.— Theodore Roosevelt, American President

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt

29. A leader is a dealer in hope. – Napoleon Bonaparte

30. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it. – W.C. Fields

wc fields 1934 - by paul hesse