Collaboration versus Obfuscation

The most valuable information is shared information. Most especially in the context of Production Teams, it is the responsibility of the Producer or Production Executive to create an environment, a hierarchy and communications matrix that supports open communication between and amongst all components of the Team. From initial concept development and all along the road of revision and evolution, it is imperative that all departments participate in the ongoing conversation and process that is to lead to the best final result.

Concurrently, the onus is on the representatives of each department, guild or discipline to respect hierarchy and process, participate in good faith, appreciate the value, talent, experience and skill of all others at the table and seek ways in which each can contribute to the moving forward of the process to the best, final result.

Balkanization of Production Teams = Bad.

At first blush, this must sound obvious. Yet, every so often one can encounter what I call a “hub-and-spoke” producer: one who holds all the cards, all the components, all the information close to the chest and shares bits of information piecemeal — where and when s/he thinks it’s needed. This means that only that one individual has the full, Big Picture. This can slow and even derail the creative and production process(es), effectively keeping those who might well prove to have creative solutions to obstacles in areas other than their own primary purview from contributing to others.

While the Producer / Director is the crucial Fulcrum for the Production and Maker of Final Decisions, s/he should strive not to hoard.

The simple fact, one that is lost even on the [purportedly] all-knowing Producer, is that not even s/he has the full picture when s/he is the only one with all the cards. By not including all others in the process, vast amounts of possibility may never come to light and the final product may suffer in ways never appreciated…as those possibilities were never articulated, examined or assessed.

I’m sure your mother taught you to Share. I’m almost positive she never told you to stop.

Simple solution.

Regular, Inclusive Production Meetings. (I know, right? This should be obvious.) At the outset of any project, one of the first things to lock is the schedule of production meetings. This, even prior to the hiring or appointing of the full team. As individuals or teams are brought onto the team, that schedule is communicated and schedules adjusted to support these regular confabs. This is critical to the success of a show or event.

My general practice for these meetings is once a week, though, increased magnitude and abbreviated schedules might support twice that, on occasion. These are calendared and a required commitment of every member of the team for the run of the project. If someone can’t make it to a given meeting, s/he is required to send someone conversant in the responsibilities and needs of that department, who can make decisions at that meeting.

These meetings, targeted at one-hour, are not optional. At these meetings, the entire production or event is gone over, moment-by-moment, piece-by-piece. Nothing is held back, and any bumps in the road are addressed, any missing pieces discovered and handled. Through this process as often as not, missing pieces are discovered, duplications of effort that affect budget are discovered: solutions are offered.

Sometimes, these meetings may only last 15 minutes. Most often, they spawn ad hoc satellite meetings to iron out conflicts or forge cooperative teams to address specifics. This is healthy stuff.

Through this, every person on the Production Team becomes aware of where they and their work fit in the production, what is taking place when they are doing their own jobs, what is the Big Picture – what are we creating. This gives a strong and deep sense of ownership and fosters responsibility.

Don’t keep people in the dark, intentionally or through ignorance. Include every discipline, even if only responsible for a small part of overall design or substance. You just never know.

Share the Budget. Allow others to see the budget at these meetings. Not to question where money is spent, but to see through their eyes that they are being supported and to call attention to anything perceived as missing as it is examined. Giving each department or individual the opportunity to review the line items relevant to their responsibilities ultimately protects from coming up short at showtime and having to make last-minute (and more expensive) changes or revisions.

It may also protect the relationship with the Client, if budgets must change. Far better to know that, way out front, than in the final days before curtain.

It is only the unprofessional who complain about money being spent in other areas – that’s the Producer/Director’s call. While there’s nothing wrong with a little offline lobbying, a clear case made in open forum for money to be well-spent will satisfy all in the room and alleviate conflict down the road.

Hear the voices of Others (beyond any already in your head). Let everyone speak when compelled to do so in these meetings…or anytime. Have the patience to let people finish their sentences. Though one might believe to have a good idea where someone is going in a line of thought or reasoning, one doesn’t actually know, until it has been said. Wait for it. Let it be said. Y’never know what you might hear…and learn…what perspective might change.


Respect the Process (Contribute to the Process) and the Process will Support You. This goes for everyone on the team, from top to bottom and side to side. Hierarchy is not bureaucracy, it is structure; a framework that should be designed so that every component of the team can depend on the others. Without Hierarchy and Fulcrum, there is no organization. Things fall through the cracks, unnecessary money is spent, departments find themselves unsupported: people, and clients, get cranky.

Trust department heads to do their jobs and alert you to problems in plenty of time. If you are a department head, be clear about the support you need and that which you offer. The regular meetings are the perfect forum to ask for support where it’s needed; to offer the same.

Then, if Hierarchy becomes Bureaucracy, burn it down and begin again.

Ultimately, the creative, production and budgetary decisions most effectively fall to one individual; to the Producer or Director or somewhere in that fluid Field of Titles that drive the process…but in the most efficient and effective structures to just one individual.

This fact of hierarchy must remain sacrosanct; being held as such by every member of the Team. I have found, in my own experience, that the more fully my teams have participated in the creation of a project, the more willing those on said team are willing to live with and actively, authentically support the ultimate decisions made by The One In Charge, when all is said and done.


Less is, Ever so Often, More

Greetings from Dubai.

I’m here on a project for a few months, which may affect topic and perspective; always a good thing to shake-up oneself by parachuting into other cultures and projects.

I came across this first video, a few days ago, illustrating a simple, promotional concept of the French Railway, announcing new service from Lyons to Brussels. It is brilliant in its simplicity; using technology that is virtually ubiquitous in the Western World and Asia to surprise and engage passers-by and promote both the railway and it’s service to the City of Brussels.

This immediately brought to mind another installation that has been floating around the globe for a few years; the Telectroscope.

Take a look at the two installations, and let’s talk…


Take a Look at Brussels

Granted; that the Telectroscope is designed as a public, interactive, art installation with a fictitious backstory while “Take a Look at Brussels” is a Marketing Strategy. Yet, examining the two, side-by-side, I see an excellent example of the effectiveness of underproduction and circumventing preconception versus setting up expectation and perhaps not quite delivering to it…especially in a technologically sophisticated population.

Both these experiences feature technology that is present in pretty much every desktop and laptop computer and many mobile devices available to us. Skype, iChat, FaceTime; these all have inured our peers to awe at being presented with face-to-face conversation at great distances.

Comparing the two experiences and their effectiveness, though, I have to come down on the side of the “…Brussels” piece. A nondescript, free-standing box which, when one’s head literally enters the space, becomes a virtually immersive, personal experience seems to greatly exceed the excitement engendered by the other install.

Expectations at Insertion are low; with simple curiosity bringing the viewer closer. Then, when inside, the unexpected is presented with alacrity and matter-of-fact humor.

This, versus a highly-themed and expensive installation that projects complexity yet offers what is, essentially, sound-free Skype. The fabricated, Telectroscope backstory of a tunnel drilled under the ocean so that people from distant cities can see one another is out of date before we start, and under-delivers, in that there is no sound.

One can thrill to come across an unexpected opportunity to wave to someone from Times Square to Trafalgar; but as a promoted destination, there seems no real payoff. A better and more personal experience can be had with iPhone and iPad between the same, two locations. Not to disparage the concept behind Telectroscope; but to point out the effectiveness of less buildup for more reward…at a far lower price.

Is there a payoff to the heavily-themed, Jules Verne-esque setting for the Telectroscope installation that offsets the increased cost? Or, does the simple surprise and matter-of-fact presence of technology in the “…Brussels” installation actually resonate more compellingly?

Something to consider when planning an experience or campaign. Big is great; as long as the payoff is comparable.


Listen Up!

We need to talk.

Industry-wide, I see a significant step in the development process being missed; costing millions of dollars, eating up months and sometimes years, causing no small amount of waste and resulting in tragic shortfall of vision, again and again.

I recently returned from this year’s SATE Conference of the TEA at Disneyland Paris. This conference (“SATE” stands for Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is an annual gathering of Creatives and Producers from the myriad, disparate sectors of the Themed Entertainment Industry (TEA stands for Themed Entertainment Association). Unique in its intimate size (around 200), SATE offers rare, informal access to some of the biggest or most groundbreaking thinkers and doers in theme parks, destination entertainment, museums, attractions and theatre in the world…creators of compelling experience.

At the conference, a virtually iconic and widely-respected leader of one of the more successful companies in the business was sharing anecdotes of some of his projects in the context of working in other cultures.

The point being made was that of the importance of Listening when entering foreign cultures and attempting to create, develop, work and build in partnership with said culture. As examples, two instances were cited wherein crucial, pertinent information came to light extremely late in the process. The point was that, had the principals not been listening with acuity at a fortunate, given moment, information crucial to successful execution of the project might have been missed.

What I believe was missed was the fact that the primary key to listening is asking questions…questions that, in these two, cited instances, had not been asked.

No question: Listening is of key importance. Virtually countless are the times a producer , director or any company or principal has parachuted into a foreign context and attempted to manifest some change or new thing without truly being in tune with the culture and specifics of the country or context into which s/he is plunging. That being said; even that requisite Listening must be guided by a preceding, underlying, fundamental discipline…Asking.

This is stronger than what is what is termed, in sales and retail, the Open Probe. This is asking direct, focused questions that help those across the table explore their own assumptions about you, about themselves and about their cultures and vision.

A previous post on this site was about Exploration of Assumption (April 4); referring to the assumption(s) inherent in vendor, audience and client. Virtually always, in the way of realization of a vision’s full potential lie the fields of not only one’s own assumptions but also what one’s client or audience might be assuming is or is not understood.

Assumption isn’t always obvious. In fact, most often it is insidiously subtle. We assume things about our surroundings simply due to the fact that we see things a certain way and accept that this is the way these things are… And often, in the context of cultural idiosyncrasy, we don’t even see for ourselves what we are assuming.

If we don’t see it, we can’t alert others to it.

One must, assiduously and regularly, examine what may be being assumed in interactions between the two, primary parties. Any two parties. It is so easy to fail to do so, and such failure will eat up time and resource in virtually every instance.

The first example was of a theme park being built in Asia. Six months in, the site was locked and construction had begun, but the core theme, the overarching Story that was to frame all experiences in the Park, had not been found or defined. Evidently, the team had been exploring and pitching themes, but nothing had stuck.

One day, when walking the property, apparently someone mentioned that the name of an adjacent mountain was “Phantom Mountain.” (Name changed to protect…)


It turned out that a handy, mystical legend or myth that was eventually and successfully developed into a compelling theme for the park had been sitting there, next to the property, for the entire time. No one had thought to ask about adjacent topography.

Presented as a delayed victory, I see this as a failed exploratory process. Months might have been saved had Assumption been Explored in the early meetings. Remember, it is not solely one’s own assumptions that call for examination and circumventing; the client is also working through a personal filter of a set of unseen or unarticulated assumptions that s/he may not see, at all.

You gotta ask!

The client or host is immersed in an environment and culture that is as familiar as one’s skin; leaving him vulnerable to the inability to casually distinguish between what is unique to an outsider, what is or may be important to fuel or expedite a process. Thus, it takes an extra discipline, a focus more acute on the part of the Producer or Creative Director to dig for and elicit information that may not even seem important enough to be dismissed by those inherently in possession of that information.

Is this making sense? To uncover facts or traditions that influence experiences in other cultures, the onus is on us to ask questions that uncover the Assumed on the part of the hosts / clients. These invisible tidbits can affect anything from nuance to overarching story and be so familiar to those in possession of the information as to not even register on the radar.


Then, Listen.

The second anecdote shared was of an installation in an Arab Country, wherein with only a few days until opening the fact that a special entrance to the property be built, especially for the Royals and VVIP’s was imperative. The usual Guest Services special entrance would not in any way be sufficient for the culturally crucial special treatment of this Upper of Upper Classes.

I can’t imagine how this could have been missed in the very first meetings on design; not to mention the raft of subsequent porings over plans and schedules. Someone failed to ask a critical question and an entire installation was designed and built without a crucial component. This, in very recent history.

This was not a failure to Listen; it was a failure to Ask…then Listen.

Exploration of Assumption.

‘Tis critical to every process, and not a one-time thing. One must keep in mind that one is very likely assuming at most times, and regularly apply the discipline of self-examination to avert expensive, obstructive negative result. Concurrently, we must know that those across the table from us, too, are equally assuming deep and imperceptible wells of pertinent information that we, as Concept Developer or Producer or Principal, need to know.

The opportunity to Listen is around us at all times. Especially when parachuting into and  moving through a new culture (any culture, actually; including one’s own); keeping one’s ears open at all times, hearing what is behind what is said, can result in the catching and absorption of nuance and detail that will very likely affect the creative process, and affect it positively when caught early.

Listen; yes. Ask, and Listen.