Jul 11, 2013

Hard Lessons in Project Management

Doing Laser Lace Letters has taught me a lot of things, but project management and time estimation have to be the biggest ones. Some of these have been tough lessons to learn, and really exposed the flaws in my thinking.

Having learned those hard lessons, I present them here.  If you’re a grizzled veteran producer, some of these things may seem obvious – but I have a feeling that this discipline takes a lot of insight to practice properly.

Don’t just guess at how long things will take.  I didn’t know how much time it would take me to get Episode 1 out the door, so I just took a random stab at it – and it turned out wrong.  When I went to figure out how much things would cost, I created a big, complicated spreadsheet to estimate expenses, but I didn’t take that same rigor with estimating time.  The result was predictable: a project with a stable, manageable budget and a messy, slip-prone timeline.

Know the size of your project.  Laser Lace isn’t a full blown ARG with live events, an online game tie in, and daily character interactions, all leading up to a film release.  That’s the scope of project I’m used to working on, and in my mind, Laser Lace is a “small” project in comparison.

Laser Lace was designed not to roam too far and stretch itself thin. It seems the more you concentrate on franchise and story extensions, the less you save the good stuff for your core product.  I cut the extra stuff down to a minimum (episode summary/teaser pages, and the Twitter prequel.)  But even that focused, undiluted story series is still a pretty hefty chunk of work – basically equivalent to a seven-issue comic.  I don’t know anyone who could turn out a seven issue comic series in four months with one project manager/writer and a remote art team.  Do you?  I’d love to meet them.  They must have one of those Tony Stark heart batteries.

Be realistic about your workload.  When I was doing my touch-and-go time estimation, I looked at what I had done in the past, and thought, “yeah, I’ve been producing at x rate, but once the Kickstarter is over, I’ll work even harder.”  In reality, I was already working at an exhausting pace – doing 20 hours of work a day, cancelling all my social engagements, trying to find time for things like haircuts, and burning out regularly.  My inner perfectionist, though, kept telling me I was half-assing it all.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that having a budget didn’t endow me with any work superpowers.

Find partners ahead of time.  One of the things I did for Laser Lace was pre-approach some artists and crafters to do work on the project when the time came.  I should have done the same with writing consultants and typesetters, and written them into my budget.  Better yet, I should have had full partners on this project from the start.  The next time I do a project of this scale, it will be with at least one other person.  Preferably two.  Doing everything myself is crazy.  What was I thinking?

Taking notes saves you hours and hours.  One thing about working with yourself is that you assume you’ll make the same decision, or understand every decision, even when there are days, weeks, or months between making the call, and implementing it.  Hahaha, you fool!  Next week you’ll come across a piece of code in your spreadsheet or a plot note and wonder, what the hell?  I’ve forced myself to establish a good note-taking and note-reading habit.  I’m still working on it.

Always be communicating.  When I started Laser Lace, I had an irrational fear of answering email.  I’ve killed that habit out of sheer necessity.  Now I answer most email in one or two sentences, usually explaining what I need next or when we can speak on the phone in more detail.  I go with my instinct more when giving design notes, and don’t waste time trying to finesse or finangle.

Spend time planning.  Plan to spend time planning.  When you’re head down, working on content, you’ve badly underestimated your deadline, and you’re feeling the pressure, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that tomorrow you have to run something to the post office.  I’m still working on putting time into my schedule to step back and look at the big picture.

It’s actually OK to prepare more.  This has been the hardest one to come to.  From the first four items it’s pretty clear that I was (and probably still am) suffering from a manic impatience that creates crazy expectations about how long it takes to do good creative work.  I had a bias against preparation, and I pushed myself to just Get the Work Out – to figure things out along the way.  I didn’t enjoy the feeling of stasis that you got from NOT shipping things.  Now I understand that I could have taken more time to better prepare for the KS launch, and the sky wouldn’t have fallen.

At the time, I felt like that push was exactly what I needed. I was unhappy that my previous project, Research & Development(s), hadn’t gotten as far along as it could – that, a few months after talking about it at StoryWorld, it wasn’t already finished.  I thought that meant I was stuck in a preparation loop – that I was puttering around with no intention of getting to the final stages. (This is a depression thing – where I manage to convince myself that I’m acting in bad faith.)

With the wisdom of Laser Lace in my system, I can see now that Research & Development(s) was pretty much where it should have been in its production cycle – it had a script, interaction design, product prototypes, and was ready to be shopped around to stakeholders, have its team assembled, and move into production proper.  In fact, once Laser Lace is done, that might just be what I do.

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