Building Excellent Teams

Louai Extended Interview, Professional 0 Comments

I’ve been working on Scholastic’s ereader for the last year. It’s undoubtedly been one of the most challenging and stressful projects I’ve been involved in. It’s a strategic project for the company and there are lots of eyeballs looking at the work my team and I pump out. As I’ve been navigating the minefield of other people’s decisions, recruiting staff, training staff, setting up workflows, and watching deadlines whiz by, I can’t stop thinking about what creates an excellent team. The very subject of team building is almost a cliche in any reading about management techniques yet I’m amazed how often the various organizations I’ve worked for ignore this foundation of productivity.

Half of Directing is Casting

A wonderful theatre professor told me this adage is truth when I took her directing class in undergrad. It holds true in all mediums. If you don’t hire people with the right skills and personality nothing you do will ever make a good team. Hiring takes as long as it needs to because the wrong people are eventually let go and the hunt begins all over again. If you take the time to cast well the first time you won’t end up like Sisyphus.

Job Titles/Descriptions Are Not Sacred

Once you get that special someone with the right skills the tyranny of their job title should be stripped away. We often reduce people’s worth to a verb, like “animator” or “programmer” or “producer”. If you’re animating a shot in a film, or writing a tool that will be used on a film, or putting together a callsheet for tomorrows shoot, all of you are the same thing; filmmakers. Excessively compartmentalizing your role within a team can easily limit your thinking, communication with other groups, and troubleshooting abilities. Your crew should be encouraged to learn outside of their job titles. We all need to learn, flourish and grow to lead fulfilling professional lives. This is a huge part of what makes some companies successful and innovative and others mediocre but existing. When people feel stagnant, they leave.

The Pipe Should Facilitate Creativity

Making creative decisions is what humans do best. Your pipeline, workflow, production system or whatever you want to call it should be designed to accommodate this fact. Many of us live in a world of computer based production, be it for interactive media or linear experiences, and computers should be used appropriately. Here’s an awesome quote, which wasn’t said by Einstein:

“Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.”

Automation, custom tools, and off the shelf applications are what make computers the most incredible creative tool ever made. Every time you ask your team member to compensate for an inefficiency in your pipeline you’re sapping them of energy they could be using in their next creative decision. You are asking them to forget they have a loyal servant at their fingertips, just waiting to perform an arbitrary task for them. There’s no sense in this. These days almost every professional application has a high level scripting interface, or can output data in XML. You can build pipelines that can accommodate almost every need and style of working imaginable. A sensible pipeline is a really, really, really, really, really easy way to keep that happy worker you searched for from turning into a zombie misanthrope.

The Big Picture Is What Matters

We’ve all seen innumerable hasty (terrible) decisions made because of a short term deadline within a larger project. Please stop making those. Eventually they pile up and you get a fortress of cards held together by post-it notes. It’ll fall. Most likely just before the project is supposed to be finished. Hasty decision making is a gigaton burden on your workers. They have to clean up the mess because of a series of decisions made in the long, long ago which seemed sensible at the time but in the larger scope of things was certainly not so. Don’t create tasks that distract from the mission. It’s hard enough as it is.

Your Team Should Breath A Sigh of Relief When You Walk Into The Room

Not when you walk out of the room. When you walk into a team meeting, or over to your members desk, they should feel relief that you’re there. They should feel inspired and confident that you can help solve today’s problem, crisis, or etc. My senior most boss at the defunct Firebrand had exactly this effect on the post production team. It did wonders for us as we scaled our mountain of avalanching work.  The “manage by panic” style, by contrast, which usually entails throwing down some insane requirement for a deadline, or yelling tirades, is poor, visionless leadership. You are meant to be their leader, a general, taking your crew into challenging and competitive territories. You must make them loyal to you by being loyal to them.

Go Forth! And Conquer!

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