Saturday, February 01, 2014

Crisis Management and the Emotionally Intelligent Producer

Image Courtesy David Castagneto
In the 20th Century we respected producers who got things done by any means necessary. In recent years, the increasing influence of digital processes have promoted the ascent of project managers into what were once conceived as creative processes.

I submit that while there is much we can learn from classic project management, that media production is its own discipline. That said, traditional methods of production are in many cased outdated.  It is evident that we require is some combination of skill sets I think of as Production Management.

Unlike project management (within the context of a production company or a post production house), ongoing operations and project development are quite often combined activities. We can not therefore manage staff with the same expectation we manage free agents commissioned to deliver within a given set of constraints. Not that we diminish our obligation of excellence to our clients, but that we develop a professional means by which to combine ongoing organizational analysis, long term strategy and team building with the execution of often overlapping projects and services, where a single person is often assigned to any or all in current production.

Naturally, this requires a new kind of media producer than from days past. Our new media producer must first and foremost exhibit a professional degree of competency across several disciplines. Contrast this with the traditional model whereby a producer might simply be a rainmaker, a relationship builder (external), or a project manager of sorts. Our new paradigm requires that producers who lead production and post production companies, and who direct the execution of multiple, overlapping projects also exhibit leadership qualities –that is, qualities and qualifications.

Some producers thrive on anarchy being excellent at crisis management; it may even be a source of pride. Fortunately, this kind of behavior, though it is still rampant, is also increasingly regarded as anachronistic.

Seasoned professionals understand that every project involves some uncertainty, but not all uncertainty is indicative of a crisis. So, if the EP at a given shop frames every project as a crisis, it's quite likely that this is someone who creates crises because this specific psychological context is one of the few things that motivates them, or because they need others to perceive them as a kind of professional hero. It is a bit like the arsonist who furtively starts a fire only so they can then publicly put it out.

Of course, producers aren't the only ones guilty of manufacturing crises.

Equally toxic to employee moral is the dissonant lead creative who assumes his or her knowledge of Autodesk or Avid software comes with people skills, or who procrastinates all day and then finds him or herself buttressed against a hard deadline which now requires additional human resources to complete on time and budget.

"But I work better under pressure," he or she says.

Perhaps they do, but what does that say about that person's regard for every other member of the organization? That there may be a person that has no qualms sending an entire organization into disarray, not because a project requires an immediate pivot, but simply in order to suit their individual needs should be considered irresponsible and impermissible. Unfortunately, and all to often, such behavior is exhibited not by one's immediate colleagues but by the organization's founders or leading talents.

Some crises are legitimate, of course, and nearly all productions come with timelines that require urgent execution to meet delivery expectations. Indeed, sometimes an agency or production company arrives with a project that they have already framed as a crisis.  Your job, then, like a smoke jumper into a forest fire, is not to perpetuate the situation but to minimize further loss and alleviate it with expert judgement and solid  technical solutions.

In practical terms, this should manifest itself as a seasoned ability to assess options, tradeoffs and impact, for any given decision one might make to avoid or manage any given issue. It should not result in unmanageable frustration, blame casting or denial by a person in or who hopes to hold a leadership position.

Afterwards, however,  one might then review the elements that led up to the crisis and make modifications to those observable inefficient processes, practices or persons that are in one's direct authority to revise, change or influence.

Otherwise, routine activities needn't be framed as crises, but rather as commonplace business problems which one can generally resolve via the protocols developed by the organizations constantly adaptive strategy:
  • Is the goal realistic? 
  • Is progress measurable? 
  • Are resources available? 
  • Is there time to execute? 

Then the dream is achievable.

But do you also possess the necessary skill set to gather and direct a collaborative team to that end? Is your capacity for team building equal to your capacity for strategic thinking? Or does your authority simply come from your job title? And does everyone on the project understand how information should be directed and distributed to the rest of the team?

Do you anticipate, execute, monitor and manage every project so that commissions are inhibited from spinning out of control? Between the initiation of a project and its execution, do you take time to plan a specific outcome, or do you just jump in? When deadlines loom are you generally still calm, courteous and collected, pragmatic and empathetic? Are your able to re-evaluate priorities, inspire colleagues and collaborators, and still competently balance constraints? Are you cool under pressure because despite the ticking clock, you're comfortably covered by human resources with the necessary technical and creative skill sets?

Do you understand that important milestones of Concept, Develop, Execute and Finish (CDEF) are fueled by Strategy, linked by Communication and managed with both Purpose and Empathy?

I submit that an emotionally intelligent leader will act quickly and purposefully, but will not act independently of the organization he or she serves. Likewise, I have found that the most effective company owners and partnerships do not treat the organizations they founded as an extension of themselves, but as independent organisms of which they are part, and which therefore require the appropriate care and management one needs for any organic entity. In other words, your child is not you.

A common tactic employed by incompetent producers is to intimidate, manipulate or otherwise threaten the key creative and technical talent necessary to the execution of a project. Projects get done, but at what long term cost? More than likely the organization sustains itself by purging itself of legitimately disgruntled employees but otherwise remains a dysfunctional black hole perpetually in danger of collapsing in on the Executive Producer, Managing Director or Creative Director.

Alternately, one might first instead take the tact of questioning feasibility of a given task with others who might be identified as important internal stakeholders, with whom you might build rapport and solicit support, and then together set specific, measurable and realistic goals. Remember, in a healthy company, tactics support organizational strategy, not the founder's personal whims. You can certainly abuse staffers and colleagues, but at what cost and impact to the long term viability of the organization?

Many lead creatives and producers do not fully frame the organization they founded as including staff. It may certainly be that all a creative organization  requires is the ability for the lead to deliver to the client's satisfaction on time, and every time. But limited to this framework, an opportunity for the organization to learn from others is missed or ignored as inconsequential.

By aligning tactics with strategy, employees who pull an all-nighter will more deeply appreciate the necessity of their contribution, and those that have to cancel prior plans may feel better about trading one night of their life to assume an active role in a the effort to produce a collective success.

If you're not a partner, perhaps realize, too, about both yourself and the person or persons that you work for, that no one is perfect, that no one can know or be good at everything, and everyone makes mistakes, says the wrong thing at the wrong time, to err is to be human, blah blah blah –okay, you got it, but now go take a class and figure out how to better communicate with and manage other people.

With any luck and a bit of tact, you'll be able to train your boss into being better at his or her job, too.


Articles in this series:

Professionalism and the Post Production Paradigm
Crisis Management and the Emotionally Intelligent Producer
The Problem with Post

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