What You Learn About Management in 48 Hours
How making bad movies can help your project management skills.
I’ve always been interested in telling stories, and as a kid we played with my friends 8mm film camera and made a few short “movies”. But the cost of film and developing was sky-high in the 1970’s, and there was really no easy way to do any editing, or to share what we made. So it didn’t really turn into a big hobby for me as a kid.
As an “adult” though in the late 1990s, I rediscovered this interest in visual storytelling, once DV tape camcorders came out, and affordable computers finally got powerful enough to allow video to be edited digitally. My first attempts at making home movies this way were, predictably, done at home. Little short things featuring the kids, with bad soundtrack and editing choices, because I really didn’t (and still do not) know much about movie making.
It didn’t stop me though, from continuing to attempt to make more complex and ambitious movie projects, and at some point I enlisted my friends to assist me with this somewhat pointless pursuit. And like good friends, they did. I would say even they came very willingly — because they were engineers, and I was an engineer, and the thing we would get the most enjoyment out of was often the technical challenges of movie making, managing time budgets, the many details of using video hardware and software, and other things like this. Things which engineers tend to love.
Most of my friends were coworkers, and I would see them primarily at work (go figure). The company of course frowned on employees making movies together on work time, but again this did not stop us from finding a way to do it. In 2006 decided we were going to make a movie entirely on our lunch hour. And I am not talking about one lunch hour, but many.
A day or two a week over a period of almost a year, we would go out at noon, film some stuff, and be back in time for people’s 1PM meetings. Coming up with local scene locations was a problem though, since travel time would detract from filming time. So we set the movie in a car. The resulting 38-minute short film, Carpool is a tale of four commuters going to work, with a little bit of Thor god of Thunder added in. (Way before Marvel brought him to the big screen mind you!)
Is it a good movie? Not really. You can watch it yourself, when making it we even went to the trouble of registering it on IMDB, and there is a link on that page to the full movie video if you want to watch it. My one regret about this project is not recording more behind-the-scenes stuff, because the making of this movie is more interesting than the movie. Weird obstacles and problems would always cause delays. We filmed a scene at a nearby coworker’s house, but the day we wanted to shoot it, we found her parents were visiting from India. Her mom insisted we stay for lunch, and cooked us all an incredible Indian feast.
The problem of course was that actually eating lunch on our filming lunch hour was not in the time budget, so nothing got done that day. It went like this a lot; not every day a success or useful day, not every week even. Summer turned to fall and winter, and we ended up with grass in some scenes and snow on the side of the road for others. But we stuck to our plan and did finish it, and we held a little Premiere party and showing for the cast/crew and families.
So what is the point here, Mad Ned? If you are asking about what the point of making that particular movie was, not sure I can answer. I got the name “Mad Ned” originally from a friend who said these crazy film project ideas of mine should be called “Mad Ned Productions” - and the brand was born. But while I can’t tell you why we did these kind of weird projects, I can say why I’m writing about them here, and billing it as a lesson in project management. That point is, sustained effort can do almost anything. Which brings us to…
Lesson #1 : Sustained Effort Can Do Almost Anything
Sure, it is a bit trite. But still worth saying, even twice. I’m not in a position to give anyone advice on how to make a good movie, but I have managed enough projects to know something about the power of sustained effort. Hydraulic systems work on this simple principle, of a little force constantly added to a problem over time. It can move buildings, crush boulders, flatten almost anything.
The secret, if there is any, is creating an environment where sustained effort can happen. This means “keep on going”, which is a hard but important aspect of it, but it also means “don’t go too fast”. This latter part is very important, because it is very easy on projects to push to meet some seemingly-important immediate deadline, but accomplish it at the expense of long-term success.
It has happened frequently over the years on projects I have worked on. There will be external pressure to complete something that causes people to work too long, or too hard, or under too much stress. The goal will be met, but people burn out in the process. People stop being productive, or sometimes even quit. Rapid early success on a project or project can often give way to long-term decline, or failure if sustained effort cannot be maintained. So the real trick becomes, how to create the environment needed for work to be done, but which will last.
Lesson #2: Project Management is People Management
There is no such thing as project management, only people management. Even employees with no direct reports who are “Product Managers” are really just managing other people, because products do not build themselves. And when I say “managing people”, I am not talking about treating people like assets, and moving various chess pieces around on the board. For long-term success, “managing people” has to be about creating an environment where people want to do their job, and can be effective at it.
Management also has to be about creating an environment where the people working on the project can trust the people in charge to be considerate of their time — both the time they have for working, and the time they have for themselves. If I had told my friends I needed them to make more time available for filming so we could speed up the process, they would have. For a while, anyway. It is possible we would have finished earlier, and have had snow in one scene and grass in another.
But it is also equally possible (or if you ask me, much more possible) that people would have grown tired of this project, considering they were sacrificing their lunch hour, not getting paid, and had no expectation of anything tangible in return for their work. I think the biggest accomplishment of our “Carpool” movie project was not the movie itself, but in pulling it off — meaning, actually finishing it.
Getting people to stick with something that crazy and with negligible end-reward for such a long time is a pretty convincing demonstration of the power of managing for the long-term, and building an environment for sustained effort. After all, if it can work with an all-volunteer workforce, imagine how well it can do if you actually pay people!
But there was another key component that kept people showing up regularly for Mad Ned Productions work. It has to do with getting people to not just be happy with the work environment, but also invested in the work itself.
Lesson #3: Capture your Team’s Mindshare
“Mindshare” is this Marketing-ish term invented in the 1980’s to describe the idea of gaining sustained consumer attention to a brand. For purposes of discussion though I am coopting this term a bit. In this case “consumers” are the people on your project (the “brand”), and “attention” here refers to having real buy-in from your team members, not just participation.
The adventures of our little movie production studio were not limited to the lunch hour. My coworkers and I eventually discovered a movie-making competition, called The 48 Hour Film Project. This organization holds yearly filmmaking competitions in different cities each year, where teams compete to make a 7-minute movie in 48 hours or less. No one knows what genre they will be assigned until Friday night at 7PM, and then each team has until Sunday night at 7PM to make a movie in their assigned genre, with specific elements including a prop, character, and dialog line included.
This formula of super-constrained time, coupled with the complex logistics of writing and producing a complete film was an alluring prospect for me, and for my engineer friends. We competed in the 48 Hour Film Project on several occasions, taking it as kind of an engineering challenge to do. This of course is not an ideal approach, and our lack of actual film making skills kept us from ever winning anything.
Like many marathon runners, the goal for us was really about finishing, not winning. And we always finished on time, turning in our movie before the Sunday 7PM deadline. This required people to work day and night, for no pay, for the most part not sleeping, with everyone well aware our chances of actually winning were small.
I was the producer for these movies, which would sometimes involve up to thirty people working together on a weekend. How was it possible to convince so many people to do this? It was because I had their mindshare. I did not have to convince them of anything, because they themselves chose to do it. They wanted to do it, and came into it with a willingness to give their all.
What I took away from these competitions was the wonderful experience of people working together with reckless abandon, on a single goal. It rarely happens elsewhere, but could be reliably counted on every year when we would get together for another attempt. At some point every weekend, I would experience a “WTF?” moment, where the surreal nature of people’s commitment towards the project would hit me.
One year for the 48 we made a movie about movie-making, that included an adventure action hero who fought a giant lizard called “Giguana”, and so we needed a giant lizard foot to be made. Late on a Saturday night while making this movie, I took a short nap, and woke up at 2AM to begin editing work again. There were multiple people awake and doing things all over the house, and also many others crashed on couches and chairs from a long day of filming. I stepped out on my deck for a short bit of fresh air.
There I encountered someone who was a friend of my friend and whom I had only just met hours before, a man named John who was a renaissance-fair costumer. He was sitting on the deck at a portable sewing machine, putting together scaly fabric attached to a series of stacked laundry hampers forming a giant, 8-foot-tall lizard foot. Flood lights shone down over this construction area, with moths swirling around him and several other people working on various set items there. And I just started laughing, wondering how in the world you could even pay people to do these crazy things, much less get them to work for free.
This and many other times like it convinced me of the power of mindshare.
And I have seen this power not only in my movie-making hobby, but also in real, paying work. I have had the great pleasure to work with teams of people where people were truly committed to a project, and I as team leader had the mindshare of the team. Amazing things can be done if this can be achieved, and it just requires creating an environment where people want to work on something, and choose to do it themselves.
Unfortunately, there is not nearly enough room in this post to expound on ways to achieve mindshare at work — for now it will have to be sufficient to point it out, and to convince people who manage to seek it, whenever possible.
Lesson #4: Let People Know When They Can Leave
What does our “Carpool” movie project share with the 48 Hour Film Project competitions? They seem at face value to be opposite approaches, one being about sustained effort over a long period of time, and the other about frenzied, all-out activity over a very short period of time. What they have in common though is, that the participants in each case had a reliable promise from me, regarding how much of their time I expected to get.
I never had any trouble at all getting dozens of people to show up at my house for a weekend of film making, and one big reason was, everyone knew it was just one weekend. The competition was over Sunday at 7PM come hell or high water, and everyone could go home. I would not be calling on Monday to set up everyone’s time for next weekend. That certainty gave people confidence that they would not be imposed upon beyond their initial commitments, and this in turn allowed them to go all out for the time they did commit to.
Same is true of Carpool, where the commitment was over many months, but a very short one of one lunch hour a week or so. My friends knew that my ask of them was limited in scope, and with that assurance, they could then be counted on to reliably provide their time and effort towards the goal.
This has obvious application to the world of work projects. It turns out that people working on your project also want to know, just how long do they need to stay, and when will they be able to leave. I’m not talking about creating an environment with reasonable expectations for project schedule , and I’m talking about things like not making people work overtime on a regular basis. When extra effort is needed, even that needs to be limited in frequency and amount. Anything short of this standard runs the risk of making sustained effort and true team mindshare on a project impossible.
If people feel their availability is being safely respected and will not be imposed upon beyond agreed-upon limits, they will be much more likely to give their all. I have actually had the experience somewhat recently of having to talk some very enthusiastic junior engineers working with me into not working on the weekend, they were so committed to solving a particular problem we were working on together. Final note regarding this would be, it becomes the responsibility of the manager to propagate ideas like creating environments for long-term success to the team, so it eventually becomes part of the work culture.
Lesson #5: Seek Objective Validation
Last lesson here is somewhat unrelated to the people management side of things, but is definitely one I learned making 48 hour movies and is quite applicable to work as well. This is the idea of always seeking an independent, objective source of feedback for what you are doing.
People might be familiar with the ‘monkey house’ analogy, which goes something like:
“When you go into a monkey house, it smells like crap. But soon you get used to it, and you don’t notice. When someone new comes in to the monkey house though, they will tell you immediately that it smells like crap.”
My very personal experience with this phenomenon would sometimes come at the end of a 48 hour film project, when teams would meet at a real, full-sized movie theater for a showing of all the movies. A packed audience (of mostly other film makers and friends) would watch all the films, and react in real time to them. Judges for the competition would also attend, and score these movies to determine the winners of various awards.
Rarely do you ever get such an immediate and stark assessment of your work. In our first go at the 48, we pulled “Comedy” as our genre, and made a pretty bad movie that in retrospect was not even close to being funny. One character for instance was a friend of mine, who we dressed up as a flamboyant publisher. We had a pretty good laugh as he hammed for the camera, because it was out of character for the real person, and it all seemed really amusing as we shot it.
The audience didn’t think so though. They were not part of our immediate group, not in on any of our jokes, and didn’t see anything particularly funny about this character, or the rest of the movie. As the crickets chirped during our showing, I could tell we had been in the monkey house, all along. We did learn from this and go on to make better, funnier movies, but they were never a match for what some teams produced, especially ones that were made up of people with actual film-making credentials.
In general the showing of the movies was my least favorite part of the 48 hour weekend, because of that brutal assessment that was handed out. But I learned there was value in it, and sometimes even a complement. One of the best experiences I had during these showings was after our movie, Domestic Horror, had aired. A guy sitting in front of our team was joined by a late-arriving friend, who asked if he missed anything good. The guy said “Yeah the last one was this really funny B-movie thing..” and went to explain our movie, unaware the makers of it were sitting right behind him. We didn’t win a thing that time, but that one guy really made the weekend worth it for me, because I knew that at least one person was truly entertained by our efforts.
Your friends, your family, your direct reports, your co-workers will all tell you what you are working on is just great. Because they care about you, don’t want to hurt your feelings, or don’t want to damage their relationships with you, and so on. And we probably actually wouldn’t want everyone we knew to be bluntly honest with us at all times. But having that source of objective feedback in whatever you may do is still super valuable, both the good and the bad kind.
Seek it out, grin and bear the bad news when it comes, learn from it. And once in a while, enjoy a few true complements that come your way!
Next Time: Working on a complex solution for a complex problem? Simple-minded folk might be out to do away with your product. The perils of pragmatism coming up in: KISS can KILL !
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