A Producer's First Steps
By Nick Guilliams [07.23.19]
When I first started out as a producer I had little to no clue how to handle a team. Based on what I see and hear now I know that many new producers or team leads are in a similar situation as I was then.
In any project you will have three factors:
These three values need to co-exist to have a healthy environment. If one fails this will cause ripple effects that can have disastrous consequences to a team.
Profit is, arguably, the easiest one. Balancing numbers is very easy to do and even easier to predict. Project shouldn't be too hard either when you think about it. There is a clear goal that you're working towards and you lay out the work that needs to happen to get there.
People is a bit harder but generally if you're not an asshole this shouldn't be a problem. If someone doesn't like something you discuss it and figure out a solution.
All three of these on their own are not a big problem. It's when they come together that shit can and will hit the fan. Profit remains the same. While there is a whole lot that can go wrong here, with terrible results if it does, the premise of it being clear to balance and easy to predict still stands. So let's assume that your company or studio does not have financial problems. This leads to the eternal question: How do you balance project and people?
I remember asking Jason Vandenberghe (Creative Director of For Honor) this exact question. He answered this with "Oh god... this is a hard one." then continued with "People. Always people.". His reasoning behind this answer was that a project will inevitably come to an end and people don't. Well.. they do but not in the way a project does. Basically, you will have to work with people in the future while that project that went bad will stop being a problem.
While it's hard to not agree with this statement this did not really answer my question. How do you balance people and project? There is an underlying contradiction in this problem that make it feel like its very hard to make decisions that benefit both. This made me realize the following:
A project is only as healthy as its team. I figured this out very early in my career yet it did not help me a lot during development because it does not actually provide you with any hands on information that you can apply to a team. However the following is incredibly important to understand:
People affect your project and project affect your people.
The two values, people and project, are inherently confounded with each other. If one goes bad so will the other and believe me, it will escalate into a negative spiral if not contained quickly. This means you have to cultivate both a healthy team and a healthy project. So how do you do that?
So to re-iterate. There are two things that, you as a producer, should safeguard:
- Team Well Being
- Project Well Being
Over the course of a project there will be numerous things that threaten both of them. It's your job as a producer to act as a protector. There are numerous ways and systems that you can use to do this. Following are a couple of points that have greatly helped me out as a producer:
- Delegate Responsibilities
As a producer you cannot handle everything because you do not have the time and you probably also do no have the skill or knowledge required to make a proper assessment over certain topics. Delegate responsibilities to people that are fit for that task so you can focus on other things while they make sure to safeguard that certain part of the project. This also lifts a worry of your shoulders. This is often embodied in the form of leads.
- Setup Goals Together
The entire team knows the end goal of the project: Deliver a successful product. This is almost always divided up into milestones. Make sure that you communicate these milestones to the team so they know what's up. If something changes let them know. You can do this during a retrospective that you have every X amount of time.
- Plan Road Together
Just like the goals you know the end goal but you do not know how to get there (Most of the time). Make sure you identify the steps you're going to take together with the team. This means that you literally sit down together with individual team members, go over the next goal and identify steps that he or she will take to reach his or her part of that goal.
- Identify Solutions Together
Team members are not stupid. They know if there is something threatening the project and they will want to take action. The last thing you want, and something that happens very frequently, is that when team members feel like things are not being handled they will come up with their own solutions to problems. If this happens you're starting to tread on thin ice because that means team members are starting to take responsibility of the protection of the project which is your role. At first it might seem that you want to hide away problems until you know how to fix this. Do NOT do this. Have movements in your sprints (or however you plan your work) where the team sits together and discusses problems in the project and how to handle them. Give each team member the opportunity to express their concerns or pitch their potential solution to a problem.
- Own up to your role
When something goes wrong claim that it is your responsibility. Your role as a protector is completely ruined once you start blaming other people or instances for an issue. Even if it was a particular team member who messed up you should still own up to it. This does not mean you have to say it's your fault but always acknowledge that you had some part in it or that you could have done more to make sure that that bad thing did not happen. This way the team know they can trust you with taking on the responsibility of safeguarding their project and can safely focus on their work.
You are a PART of the team. The way i see it the producer is responsible for the team and the team is responsible for the project. This means that TEAM is central.
Lastly here are a couple of pitfalls that i have seen and/or experienced:
I have seen some very motivated producers becoming the biggest bottleneck of the project. Because they want to make sure everything happens correctly they become a core part of every pipeline in the team. Trust your team members, trust your leads.
- Don't shoot the pianist
If something happens do not simply point the finger in another direction. There is ALWAYS and something that you could have done to get a better outcome. If you make the decision not to do something or chase a particular thing make sure you know why you chose that. This can be as simple as "I did not see the value in pursuing X". The simple act of pulling the responsibility to you is what matters here because it allows people to give constructive feedback and for you to realize that you might not have made the right decision after all.
- Too people focused
This is one that i fell into during my first projects. I was too concerned with how the people were doing that i forgot how the project was going. This resulted in an extremely strange situation where the team was comfortable with me as a leader but not as a producer. Make sure to safeguard both aspects.
- Too project focused
If you're too project focused you will be seen as an asshole. Generally project focused producers will get a lot of stuff done and thus earn the obedience of a team. Sadly this makes you not pleasant to work with because teams feel like you do not care about them.
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