Lessons Learned

Over the last two blogs I had a look at how companies manage their teams to maximize useful creative output in their operations, but something kept bugging me.. I understand and appreciate all the points that my research uncovered, but they simply don’t seem to directly apply to my business. As a start up, Fairlight Studios is operating on such a small scale that each team member has to take on multiple roles, not to mention the constant distraction that comes as part of the journey when figuring out how to run your first company. This means that while we want to do the best work possible, as attested to in the Harvard Business Review, we are definitely distracted from our creative tasks, and are often strung out and tired, making it difficult to fully engage intellectually. The pressure cooker environment is nothing unexpected given that start-ups require blood, sweat and tears to get out of their seminal 3-year years, but I hadn’t anticipated it to affect my creative output so much.

I often feel guilty when I spend long hours editing photographs or video, and can’t help but dwell upon the opportunity cost of all the business admin tasks that I am not doing as a result. This distraction does not stop me from working, but rather it diminishes my enthusiasm for the creative task at hand, stopping me from exploring the boundaries of a project and pushing my creative development by trying new things. While this factor doesn’t stop us operating, it reduces the quality of our output from excellent to average, and hurts us in the long run by detracting from our growth and reputation.

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A good example of a scenario where our lean nature compromises the potential creativity of a project is one of our recent on-location film shoots. As the visual director, it was my responsibility to run the shoot, taking on the the roles of director, producer, 1st AD and camera operator. This is not a situation that I would have planned intentionally, but budgets being tight and friends who would have helped out being unavailable, there was no other option. The shoot went successfully, and I have to say that despite my initial qualms I’m happy that we carried out the event smoothly and professionally, but I feel that our goal as a creative service provider should be greater than simply ‘not failing’ at a project – however ambitious.

So what lessons have I learned, and how can our practices evolve to improve our production in the future?

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The biggest difficulty that I have been impacted by is having to take on too many conflicting roles at once. This is a problem that cannot be immediately managed around without substantial resources, and as a result I feel that it’s vital instead to identify the areas that I am best suited to taking full control of, and then to work towards hiring specialist individuals to join our team in the future to address the positions that I am less able to contribute to. Trusting these new additions to the team is also critical, as if I end up watching over their shoulder the entire time, I will not have alleviated anything. I spent some time shadowing Guy Bauer, a successful videographer who runs a corporate video production company in downtown Chicago, and he advised that one should hire another employee only when the current company structure reaches breaking point. This advice highlights the importance of balancing efficiency with workload, as both can be fatal to emerging organizations. As such, hiring now would be irresponsible, but I must make sure to be aware of what positions to fill and be ready to do so when the time comes.

My second observation is that I could have better managed the pre-production process of the aforementioned shoot. In this particular scenario, I was stressed out by my assignments and the post production concerns of the previous project, and didn’t give the concept development stage enough attention. While I was far from the only one involved in the development of the idea, I was definitely the one driving it, which meant that we lost out on potentially more suitable ideas. As an example, Jack, the head of our music department, felt from the beginning that we were biting off than we could chew for our first on location video, but as he assumed that his input wasn’t as relevant he kept the opinion to himself until it was too late for us to change the plan. I will now emphasize a brainstorming session at the beginning of each project, where all members of the team are encouraged to get their hands dirty. This will help on the shoot as well as getting each member to feel as if they have part ownership of the concept and will be motivated to make it succeed. Not that they weren’t motivated before, but there is a significant difference between just getting it done and going the extra mile. This links back to Ideo and AirBnBs implementation of a flat hierarchy to sustain creative problem solving.

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Thirdly, following on from a lecture that I was lucky enough to have last week enlightening me on the importance of ‘play’ when producing good work, I have realized the importance of business being seen as enjoyable. Not only have studies shown that using your hands to play with something such as Lego while engaging with a task actually increases individuals’ focus, but the act of taking the serious edge off of a situation can spur creative confidence and output. In our lecture, we were sat at group tables around a minor mountain of lego bricks, and we were tasked with building a duck using exactly 7 pieces. The variation of ducks that were produced was fantastic, and the exercise highlighted the way that we all have differing perspectives. We were then asked to simplify our models by removing three blocks, leaving us with what could be considered the ‘core’ of what made our ducks ducks. Again, this is a brilliant illustration of simplification of an idea and the realisation that stripping back unnecessary elements of a concept or business can lead to an improved, streamlined version. This ‘serious play’ tool can be used in a number of ways, and within my own organisation I would like to use it to level the playing field – to take idea generation and conception out of the theoretical and into the practical, and to involve everyone with a real task that prolongs and promotes engagement with the problem being addressed. Other than needing to dig up all our old hoards of lego bricks, there is one problem that needs to be addressed before Fairlight Studios can properly harness this technique.

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This brings me onto my last point concerning ways of implementing management strategies to support our studio going forwards, and this time it is a psychological barrier that needs to be broken rather than a physical one. When there is pressure to be working all the time, and to add value to the business or die trying, we all too often forget that we are doing this because we want to. We have chosen to try to run our own creative business because we genuinely enjoy the work, and want to make our passion a life pursuit. Of course it can be easy to lose sight of the positive reality when deadlines are pressing and there are one hundred things every day that need to be done, but without taking a moment to be mindful once in awhile, the entire ordeal becomes pointless and we might as well be working in regular 9 to 5 employment. I am particularly guilty of taking on as much stress as I can get my hands on. As the eldest of the three brothers, I feel the need to shoulder the intangible burden of running a company, and at times this has led to argument and strife that bleeds into our personal lives (something that is almost unavoidable when you live and work in the same house). It is vital to remind myself therefore, that sometimes it’s better just to stok caring quite so much. If the website takes another day to get up online, then it’s ok – we will nail it tomorrow. If the latest edit of a track or video isn’t coming together, step away and take a breather. By scheduling time to spend relaxing or distracting oneself from the pressures of business management in some way or another – whether through lightening up brainstorming or strategy sessions with lego, or holding business meetings while walking in the park, it is vital to give yourself regular mental breaks. Having high standards and even higher ambitions is great, but they achieve nothing if I am too fraught to be able to perform creatively.

These lessons are all very much still being learned, but it is cathartic to see it all down on paper. As our growing business starts to take real shape there will be an infinite number of challenges that we will have to address, but enjoying the experience and learning as much as possible from it means that even if it eventually a failure, the journey will still have been a success.

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