Lessons in Project Failure from Brad Pitt

by Jennifer Miller on June 24, 2013

in Leadership

success_failure_sign in field

Courageous Leaders Can Turn Around a Failing Project

It takes courage to admit that a project is tanking. Even for big-shot movie stars. When Brad Pitt saw the first cut of his newly released film World War Z, the final third act of the movie was, in his words, “just atrocious” according a USA Today interview.

What Pitt said next in the interview is telling. He admitted that for the first day or two, he was defeated and trying to decide what to do. Then he describes a moment of reckoning:

“And then after that you go: ‘OK, we’ve got to get back in there. We’ve got to tear this thing apart and we’ve got to make this thing work.’ “

According to Pitt, who produced and starred in the movie, that’s what he and his crew did.


Now, I don’t care one fig about zombie movies, so I have no idea if the re-boot worked. But I do like Pitt’s take on failing projects:

  1. Acknowledge that something is off.
  2. Resist knee-jerk reactions. Live with it for a bit to assess the size of the problem.
  3. Avoid paralysis. Get to work to fix it.
  4. Relish in learning from the experience.

I’m making an inference about point #4, drawing from the USA Today’s interviewer who describes Pitt as “chuckling” and with a twinkle in his eye when describing the film’s disastrous dénouement. When recalling a pivotal moment in the making of his movie, Pitt appears able to embrace the near-failure. To be sure, big money was on the line. It might have been tempting to ignore the signs of a poorly scripted movie. Instead, he and his team faced it head on and make changes, even though it resulted in a six-month delay of the film’s release.

Here’s the takeaway for all leaders – be they in senior leadership, project managers or film producers:

Sometimes projects are on the fast-track to failure. It’s up to the leader to lead the charge to fix it. Without courage, it won’t happen.

Discussion: Have you seen a leader courageously face up to failure? How did it affect you?


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Miller June 24, 2013 at 10:17 am


Please do let me know if you think Brad’s re-work was effective. Even if it wasn’t, I still stand by my assertion that at least he *acknowledged* the project was tanking and took action to remedy it. So many leaders don’t want to face the truth.

Jennifer Miller June 25, 2013 at 9:49 am

Beth- good to know! And thanks for not having this be a spoiler-alert 🙂

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