Of Studios and Sweatshops

For some reason, many companies treat their production team as a fixed quantity, something to be accommodated or disbanded but rarely improved. It’s the rare C-level executive who understands that a production team exists on a spectrum between good and bad, and that thoughtful management can influence the quality of their team. Perhaps this says something about the quality spectrum of C-level executives: the fewer people at the top of the pyramid, the narrower and more polarized the output.

I’ve worked with some great teams and (less frequently) as part of some less than great teams, and there are unambiguous differences between the two:

Production Environment - Quality

When I draw this sort of quality spectrum for senior stakeholders, I always get well-meaning nods, because really, all things being equal, who WOULDN’T want to live at the progressive edge of the quality spectrum? Of course all things are NOT equal, I’m invariably reminded, so that’s the time to layer another dimension onto the quality spectrum which will speak directly to those in the room with P&L responsibility:

Production Environment - Profit

There’s a linear relationship between quality and profitability; while quality in and of itself doesn’t guarantee market leadership (or we wouldn’t all be abandoning CDs for low-bitrate MP3s), there’s little doubt that it provides a more fertile ground for success. I recently wrote about decreased retention as one of the major costs of a low quality environment, but there are many, many others:

  • Sub-standard deliverables throughout the project lifecycle, which can live on for years, iteration after iteration
  • Bad PR, some of which will invariably make its way to clients and prospects
  • Increasingly difficult recruitment leading to longer hiring cycles

So how can a company specifically target the intersection of quality and profit? For project managers, the logical tool is process optimization:

Production Environment - Process

A nimble process set isn’t a silver bullet. There are myriad risks which can enhance or destabilize a growing team, none of which should be ignored — black-boxing; underutilization; overcommitment — but without a robust and flexible set of proven processes, a production team has as little chance of stumbling upon quality as a High Street busker has of joining the London Philharmonic.

(Nimbleness is obviously relative. For team members who’ve worked in start-up environments, submitting timesheets and juggling stakeholder approvals can seem onerous; conversely, graduates of process-heavy enterprise environments often feel untethered when given broad latitude to manage scope and resources. At either extreme you’ll find those who use process, or avoid process, to conceal individual deficiencies.

If you design processes which facilitate individual growth and inhibit unwanted risk, odds are you’ll find an acceptable balance between paperwork and creative improvisation.)

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