Advice About Dealing with the Mistaken Confetti Drop at an NBA Playoff Game


This was in the news the other day, and it's fun to talk about mistakes that don't harm or kill anybody:

Confetti delays Celtics-Hawks Game 4 playoffs series

As the game announcers described, it was “a legitimate confetti issue” with about one minute left in the first quarter of the NBA first round playoff game that was being held at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

“At first, it looked like one piece… but it's multiplied like rabbits… and it's not stopping.”

It wasn't a torrent of confetti, but it was enough to delay the game for seven minutes so they could clean it up. Safety first — you don't want players slipping and falling on a piece of confetti.

Several pieces of small, white paper appeared to drop early in Game 4 from the large video board that hangs above the court. Some of it descended into the crowd and bench areas, but enough got onto the floor that officials called timeout with 1:19 remaining.

The problem continued a bit into the second quarter:

A few pieces of confetti continued to fall at the start of the second quarter, but not enough to address.

Ask, “What Happened?” Not “Who Did It?”

OK, so this clearly wasn't supposed to happen. NBA teams might release confetti when they win a playoff series, but it's not supposed to fall during a game.

Four years ago, a larger mishap occurred at a Philadelphia 76ers playoff game:

Marco Belinelli of the Sixers hit a shot as the game clock expired at the end of the 4th quarter. They were down two and Belinelli's shot looked like it might have been a three, which would have won the game. But it was a two.

I'm guessing somebody hit the button before getting confirmation that the game was over. Human error. There was a delay before overtime could be started.

In a funny twist, they ended up losing the game after the premature jocularity.

What Might Have Happened?

When a mistake happens, it's better to ask questions about “what happened?” and “how could that have occurred?” instead of asking “who messed up?”

In the case of the Hawks-Celtics game, before asking “who?”, it would help to explore if some sort of physical malfunction had occurred in the scoreboard or whatever netting might have held confetti for later celebratory use.

Maybe it was a manufacturing mistake? You wouldn't want to fire a team employee for that.

Maybe somebody made a mistake by not loading the confetti holder (technical term?) correctly? Or maybe somebody overfilled it? Either way, I'd call those “process problems,” and I wouldn't look to fire an individual. Don't throw somebody under the team bus.

If a procedural mistake was made in filling or securing the confetti holder, we should consider that a “training issue.” Was the person (or were the people) involved trained properly by somebody who was knowledgable?

If somebody simply hit a button when they shouldn't have, why was that possible? This has happened before and it will happen again. Scapegoating and firing an individual doesn't eliminate the systemic risk or cause of a mistake.

If we were leaders in the organization that runs the arena, we wouldn't want to just sit around and speculate (like I'm doing here). You would be better off following the Toyota leadership advice of:

  • Go see
  • Ask why
  • Show respect

Choose Learning (and Sharing) Over Punishment

Investigation beats speculation — but only if people working there feel the level of psychological safety that would allow them to speak up honestly without the fear of punishment. What's happened has happened. Nobody got hurt. Punishing people (or the fear of punishment) only makes it more difficult to understand what really happened, which means we might not learn enough to prevent that same problem from occurring again.

Ideally, the team at State Farm Arena would share what they learned with other arenas — in Philadelphia and otherwise.

The cause of the mistaken confetti drop hasn't been shared yet. I hope we don't see headlines about somebody being fired.

I discuss these dynamics in my upcoming book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. And we discuss such things in my podcast, “My Favorite Mistake.”

How can we prevent mistakes in our workplaces? How can leaders learn that blaming and punishing individuals is often counterproductive?

If leaders learn these lessons in a widespread way, and choose learning over punishment, I'll drop a bunch of confetti to celebrate!!! But intentionally.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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