Own it, don’t groan it.

By Rob Anderson

A personal retrospective on what it means to be a project manager.

Recently I partook in a fireside chat with a bunch of seasoned project managers from around the country. OK it was a pub but there was a fireplace. Plus lots of beer.

Inevitably discussion gravitated to all the problems and heart aches that we have each been apart of over the years. War stories if you will. At first it was fun to talk about what went wrong on this project or who had the hardest time doing this particular job or that one. After a while though I found myself getting frustrated. I think in part this was due to the lack of rum in my glass but mostly it had to do with the fact that almost all of the stories revolved around the project person feeling as if they were never in control of the destiny of the production.

Typical anecdotes were things like, “ I told the Producer that was a bad idea. They didn’t listen and look what happened”. I am sure that all project managers have been in a position like this. One where they feel their voice is not being heard and that they know the s**t is going to hit the fan but feel powerless to stop it.

Like everyone else there I agreed and would pat them on the shoulder in an attempt to comfort them. I of course had a few of my own experiences to add into the pile. At this point I started an internal reflection process. This is where my frustration began.

Years ago when I first started managing projects I had a sign above my desk that said, “I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control”. At the time I started I knew of no schools or books that taught how to manage projects in the world of entertainment. I think I took on the job because A; I wanted it and B; no one else did.

Like all jobs in the industry I learned most of what to do by working under others with more experience. Learning both the good and the bad. I suspect it took longer to realize what were the bad habits than the good.

The reason I had that sign was many. Mainly I felt that I was only paid to do the task that I was given. I had no real control. The task being, managing large teams and budgets within a timeline that was immovable. The problem that I constantly came across was that the timeline/budget often seemed to be unrealistic or even impossible. No matter what, we had to get the project done with the budget and people allocated to it in the time that was given yet this rarely seemed to take place.  Delays or costs would increase. Stress was palpable among us all.

I read a paper recently that stated over 60% of all projects fail in some way, either due to cost over runs or delays. This isn’t an excuse. Just some perspective.

The great thing about making mistakes or being part of them is that, if you can weather it, you can learn from them. At the end of every project I would do a post mortem on the project as well as what I thought I did or didn’t do on it. I tried to be as objective as possible. Not an easy task if you have any sort of self-confidence issues.

The first big mistake I had to own up to was the simple fact that I was the one that needed to take ownership for the processes that I was put in charge of.  The key words there are IN CHARGE of.  My boss may have given me a schedule/budget that I don’t think was doable. That doesn’t mean I have no say in what needs to happen. You have been put in that position for a reason. You hope that the reason is because you are trusted to get it done. If that is the case it is up to you to come up with, what you believe to be, realistic solutions to the problem that you have been handed. Of course you can’t go doubling the costs or staff but you can take the time to produce realistic criteria that will need to be adhered to in order to make the end dates and costs.

If you are not listened to you have a few options available.

  1. Suck it up and do the best you feel you can, knowing that it won’t be enough.
  2. Leave.
  3. Stand by what you believe. Even if you end up being wrong. Own it. Do what you have to, to make your points stick and be aware of what the consequences may be.

Most of us had done the first. A few had done the second but sadly few had done the third.

This may sound like a simplistic view and you would be right.

Fear plays a big role in what you do at this point. You may feel strongly that you know that what is on paper is not doable but how do you let the powers that be know without losing your job? The fear of failure rears its ugly head yet again. You may bring the issues up in the next production meeting only to have them put aside by those above you who say things like, “I know and understand your concerns but this is the hand we are dealt. Make it work”.

What took me a long time to realize is that I had to be the one to own the processes that I was put in charge of. I had to get beyond my own fears of failing and do what I believed to be the right thing. No matter what the outcome. I was put in that position to make things work. It was up to me to make it so. When I made this decision things took on a different perspective.

Yes there were still times where I failed but I made the effort to point out those failures and what could be done to avoid them in the future. Both from my perspective and the perspective of future project milestones.

I no longer have that sign above my desk. There are days still where I feel I need it but then I remember my family motto.

Stand sure.

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5 Responses to “Own it, don’t groan it.”

  1. The problem is that budgets and schedules are often created by people who don’t understand the process they’re using to create a project. Then the artists get handed those items and they become responsible for making it happen.

    The other problem is that clients, whether they are producers or broadcasters, are sometimes unyielding when it comes to revisions. They can be told that the changes they ask for are going to take time or money, but they ask for them anyway without acknowledging the increased cost or the inevitable delays.

    The production manager is often caught between an ignorant upper management and over-worked artists. An educated upper management, one that is realistic about time and money and is willing to design appropriately, is the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant project. Unfortunately, those managements are few and far between.

    #11086
  2. Very true.
    I consider it part of the position to be an educator for both sides of the equation. Both for upper management as you say and the team doing the day to day on a project.
    If as the production manger you feel that you are caught in-between then you really have to re-evaluate your role as not one of being stuck in the middle but being in the right place to do the best for the project overall.
    If you do feel like you are stuck in the middle then, in a way, you have already failed.

    #11087
  3. Heisenberg

    It’s always seemed to me that the primary purpose of a Project Manager/Line Producer/Production Supervisor/etc, whether or not that person is someone I like and respect personally (and I have been friends with several of them), has been to be the annoying gadfly of any studio.

    Their main preoccupation seems to be constructing schedules, or colour graphs and charts about the schedule that bear no similarity to reality and are constantly revised, or they go around bothering animators and other artists about their productivity, punctuality, or what have you (which of course, does absolutely nothing to increase their productivity or improve their punctuality since they have no authority to reprimand employees or ability to increase budgets or extend deadlines).

    I’ve also witnessed that they seem to attend many meetings, hand out paycheque stubs, assign scenes to animators, and post notices about new company policies on cork boards that no one really bothers to read – all tasks, more or less, that you could probably hire an intern or student to do.

    It’s amazing really, that they always seem to stick around, even while artists are being layed off left and right, when you consider the absolute banality and uselessness of their intangible contributions to any production.

    #11231
  4. Mr.(Ms.) Heisenberg.

    I laughed when I read your note above. Especially the part about having been friends with several of them. I think if we were talking about Homosexuals or Ethnic Minorities someone might have taken offence. 🙂

    It sounds like the issue is not so much your disdain for the role of a PM but the perception you have, either rightly or wrongly, that a PM has no authority over what happens on a project.

    I think that speaks volumes more towards the policies at the specific companies that you have been involved with. I know that I have been in that difficult situation more than once in my career. A situation where a boss gives you responsibility but no power to go with it. But that is an illusion and one that is perpetuated within the animation industry specifically. It is part of the reason why PM’s generally have a bad reputation.

    The other side of that coin is the fact that most of the PM’s that work in the Animation industry have little to no formal training in the field of Project Management and best practices. People get hired into these positions because they are good at organizing things. That is a good reason but should not be the only one.

    #11317
  5. Mark C.

    Hi Heisenberg,

    I agree with you for the most part. Great Production Managers are very hard to come by and anything less than a great production manager has a very hard time negotiating the difficulties of an animation production, they almost always fail. It’s not easy to manage moody artists, impossible schedules, dwindling budgets, client expectations, and producers. A Production Manager becomes the focus of blame for all of these issues when they go sour. It’s a unique position, and one where pleasing everyone is never really an option… and that’s if you’re good at it.

    As Rob rightly points out, most PMs are thrust into the job without the proper skill set or experience to complete the job with full success.

    This happens all the time in animation for an artist, each new job you try you are thrown into it with little preparation and expected to deliver much like the people who are full professionals in that role. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. Failure at the artist level is no big deal, the effects are minor to the entire production and the artist often just goes to a different department or back to the one he/she came from.

    A Production Manager’s failures are amplified and echoed over an entire production, often effecting everything. Each minor issue in each department is their problem, each hiccup in delivery, each client request, literally every issue from the mundane to the massive.

    I guess what I’m trying to say Heisenberg is that in many cases your experience with Production Managers is something we’ve all witnessed. But when you work with a good one, it’s amazing the impact they can have on an entire production, they can literally be the most important piece of the puzzle for a smooth and effective production environment.

    On a side note, did you choose your screen name because of the ‘Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle’ in quantum physics? If so, your comments are more than poignant. Heisenberg’s principle states that pairs of physical properties cannot be simultaneously known to a high degree, basically the more accurately a single property is measured the less accurately the other can be measured. Animation production is like that, we tend to concentrate on our own department or role and know it to an insanely specific degree, and have little to no understanding of the nuances of all the other departments and how the whole mess fits together.

    #11323

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