Leadership and planning is back - three tips to survive extreme uncertainty

Petri Rikkinen • Emerging business & culture initiatives

Hi there,

Agile digital projects and animation productions are not that far away, or are they?

What I learned from Antti Haikala, a co-founder from a leading Nordic animation studio Anima Vitae, is that leading a production of an animation movie isn’t like this photo:

No, leading an animation studio means being obsessive about discipline, leadership and quality.

Imagine a situation: hundreds of creatives working, a budget of millions of euros, and the end result should evoke emotions – make you weep, giggle or grieve. At the end of the day, you want to see people queuing to get the premier ticket.

At the same time, try to make all this happen by investing at your own risk half a year of free work in an environment where the traditional business model is crumbling. Goodbye DVD sales revenues.

We’re are talking about the type of uncertainty that most of the companies have never experienced before.

“I make art plans in excel”

Making a movie isn’t difficult as a process, just four phases: 1. Story building and financing 2. Pre-production such as planning and pre-visualization 3. Production 4. Post-production such as music and sounds. Marketing and other additional actions start typically in the production phase.

But theses phases can take up to 8 years from which 2 years go for production and 6 years for planning, re-writing and re-doing. Financing is something that you usually secure somewhere in the middle of the pre-production phase, meaning you might need to take on months work without knowing if it pays off.

The idea of planning is to ensure that risks and targets of the production are well understood and that the underlying story itself is excellent.

“The greater the uncertainty, the bigger need for leadership”

In some high ambitious productions, there might be THE leader with THE vision, and people work 24/7 and cry. But in most cases a no asshole policy brings better results. This does not mean that lack of a leader helps either.

Loving autonomous teams and trusting each individual's judgement does not remove the need for someone whose role is to ease the team's’ feelings of uncertainty.

In a huge production, everyone is uncertain about something - a producer fears if the movie is going to hit its revenue targets, animators are concerned about quality, and the director is uncertain if the story dramaturgy carries the whole story into an art.

In this environment, there must be someone who has the understanding of the risks, vision and the content. This person’s role is to defend the movie and make sure other producers or stakeholders don’t destroy it by panicking and requesting changes that may ruin the original vision.

The more self-organizing the teams are, the better. But the leads role is also to step in if the team itself isn’t capable of performing what it should.

“This isn’t good enough.”

Typically, the team is 7-10 specialists, each team has a lead and a supervisor manages couplea coupleams. Each lead and supervisor are also experts in a couple of areas such as character animation and tech. They’ve done the actual work themselves at some point in their career.

Hands-on experience gives a lead credibility when having to say “this isn't’ ok quality” or admit “my job is to make this success but this is something I don’t know, I need your help.”

Quality isn’t something you can compromise on. Quality motivates animators and in the longer run makes them stay with the production and the company. Make people relax while demanding better quality.

Quality and flexible workforce such as subcontractors and partners are also a must in animation productions. How do you ensure the quality when using partners? A new partner is a risk in terms of quality unless you've to work together at some point. A well-known brand helps also to minimise quality risk.

Key insights for digital projects:

  • Plan, plan, plan more. In agile digital projects we are not that much planning, but start testing with the real customers as soon as possible. However, in extreme uncertainty planning with the experts is how to start the job. The plan is the first pilot. Easiest and cheapest pilot is to make a plan on a paper. Plan who is doing what and when, is the story best in class and what are the risks. Once done, ditch the plans but keep your eyes on the vision.
  • Autonomy teams need leadership! Bring in a supervisor to say what works and what not. Find a more senior person, who knows the business and is not involved in team’s daily work. If you don’t have an own expert supervisor in the house, hire one.
  • Be obsessive about quality. Once a team gets honest feedback from a trusted supervisor not involved in daily work it gradually starts recognising what quality looks like. Corrective feedback feels often a slap on a face. Avoid this by creating a structure for feedback by regular meetings and giving also encouragement. Invite relevant people to see what’s been done in these regular dailies. Make whole progress visual and comment on how pieces come together. Don’t sub-optimize design, code, business by having just code or design reviews.

That’s it, folks. Comment on our Facebook, what you liked. There’s more coming shortly.

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