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Lessons I Learned From Lying to James Cameron

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In a former life, I got to work on some pretty cool films. But, it was an April 1997 meeting on my first day working as a digital effects producer on James Cameron’s “Titanic” (at the visual effects studio Digital Domain) that I share with business school students because of its implications for decision-making processes in high-pressure environments.

Now, if you’re a film buff, you know that Titanic wasn’t released until December 17. But in April of that year, the movie was still destined to be a summer blockbuster. But the picture wasn’t locked yet, no shots had been finaled and 20 Century Fox was getting nervous because it needed to start spending millions to advertise for the release of a film that was looking increasingly like it might not deliver. So it was in this meeting that Jim asked each of the department heads at Digital Domain a yes or no question – are we going to make our release date?

Even at the time, sitting in the conference room, the answer was obvious to me – no. Why? I was no supply-chain expert, but I understood basic math. I divided the number of film frames that needed to be worked-on by the number of days left to do the work and it was clear that a July 2 opening was physically impossible. And yet, when it came my turn to answer, I said yes, we could make the delivery date. Yep. I lied. In fact, with one notable exception, everyone in the room did the exact same thing – we all told James Cameron we could make the release date. Or, stated differently, everyone else in the room lied right along with me.

Think about that for a moment. These were all professionals at the top of their game, with the credits to back it up. They were working round the clock to help realize Cameron’s vision. They were passionate. They were committed. Not only were they the A-Team, these were ethical people. And yet, even when provided an opportunity to tell the truth, no one did. For myriad reasons, everyone stuck by the lie that the movie could be completed on time. And for his own reasons, Cameron chose to accept the lie as truth – even though I still believe he had to have known that his movie was in trouble with its release date.

The lesson, to me, was obvious. Management may ask questions. And may even have the best intentions in seeking truthful answers. But, when the risks associated with lying appear to be lower than those associated with telling the truth, management will get the lowest risk answer – but not necessarily the right one. And in this instance, with so much on the line, it was much safer to tell James Cameron the answer he needed to hear – that everything was fine – that to admit the truth to him – which was that everything wasn’t.

And that’s the point of this story. It’s not about what happened next, or the consequences of the lie. It’s about the fact that, when faced with a sense of danger (that we might get fired, that we might get in trouble), even well-intentioned people will lie if that seems like the best available option. Which, for management, means that getting to the truth can only happen when the stakes are lowered enough that people feel safe in sharing it.

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