Editing for Success: Applying Hollywood Wisdom to Projects
I’ve long been a believer that a good movie is 90 – 120 minutes long. Sure, there’s the occasional storyline that can keep my attention for longer than that, but generally speaking after a couple of hours I’m getting pretty restless. One of the reasons I rarely go to the movie theater these days is that films seem to be getting longer and longer, and unlike watching at home I can’t press ‘pause’ in the theater!
It turns out that I’m not alone. Celebrated film director Sir Ridley Scott, who directed films including Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner recently spoke about the ‘bum ache’ (‘butt ache’) factor of films. Too long sitting down and apparently movie-goers will get uncomfortable, and this is something that he takes account of in his editing. A classic case of “less is more”, and a director being empathetic to his audience.
Less Is More
I know virtually nothing about movie production, but I’m guessing that it is probably technically easier to produce and distribute a long film than it was, say, 40 years ago. I gather that in the past films came on multiple spools, all of which had to be physically duplicated and distributed. Apparently since the early 2000s, films have been distributed digitally to theaters. With fewer constraints, you could have a ten hour film if you really wanted it.
Yet being unconstrained isn’t a good thing. I’m guessing few people are lining up to watch the ten hour film “Paint Drying” (which is a real film, but was a protest against the cost of censorship). The fact that it’s possible to do something because a constraint is removed doesn’t mean that it’s actually a good thing to do. Sometimes constraints can foster creativity.
From Hollywood To Projects: Time As A Constraint
I’m guessing that you probably don’t work on Hollywood movies, but there’s a direct parallel with projects here. After all, a Hollywood movie brings together a collection of specialists for a period of time to create a deliverable that will generate benefits for its sponsor… which sounds strongly analogous to a project!
One constraint that you and I probably come up against frequently is time. There never seems to be enough, and time is always the thing being squeezed. It is easy to become somewhat jaded to this, and either just accept the deadline (but implicitly know that it’ll never be met) or rally against it.
Certainly, calling out unrealistic deadlines is an important thing to do. Yet, in some circumstances an alternative approach is to test the constraint and see how it balances against others.
Let’s imagine that a sponsor has set a deadline of 1st January for the launch of a product or project deliverable. We feel there’s a risk that this is an arbitrary deadline, so we start to tactfully ask “if it was two weeks later, but 10% cheaper, would that be beneficial?”. If the sponsor says “Absolutely, yes!” then we know that they probably value the budget over a fixed deadline. Or we might ask “How about we delivered it on that date, but the quality was lower?”. They might answer “No! Absolutely not”, at which point we know quality is paramount. We might ask these types of questions about all sorts of things, including scope, timeframe, deliverables, style of delivery and so on.
What we’re doing here is understanding which are hard constraints that genuinely can’t change (or, there would be a significantly negative impact of breaching) and those that can potentially bend. Not achieving regulatory compliance by a mandated date, where the regulator is strict and there’s a significant fine, might be an example of a hard deadline. It’s better to pay more now, and dedicate more resources to ensure compliance. Other things which appear to be constraints might be more malleable.
Product Management and Business Analysis as Film Editing
Once the hard constraints are identified, it’s tempting to be deflated. Rarely are we dealing with a situation where there’s too much time, resources and budget. Yet another way of looking at this is to think about the movie theater experience… sometimes less is more. Much as an ambitious scriptwriter might have a scene cut because it’s not essential to the story (or the location is too expensive to hire), we can ‘edit’ elements of a project or product in or out.
This probably sounds obvious, I mean scoping and prioritization is crucial. Yet, too often scoping and prioritization are carried out somewhat in isolation. It’s easy to end up with an incoherent set of features, or (worse) to find that only the person who shouts the loudest gets what they want…
If we reframe this as a process of ‘editing’, then we are keeping in mind the coherence and desirability of the product as a whole. Imagine asking twenty people for their favorite ever scenes in movies. Perhaps one mentions a scene from Wargames, another from the Barbie movie, another from Love Actually and so on. Now imagine making a film out of these ‘best’ scenes… it wouldn’t make any sense. The same can be true of a product too. If the features aren’t coherent it can become somewhat of a Frankenstein’s monster that is difficult to use and doesn’t really serve any single purpose well.
Another thing about editing is that it involves compromises and making difficult decisions. I’d guess actors probably hate having their biggest scene cut. And script writers probably hate being told they can’t have that on-location scene in Barbados due to budgetary cuts. But, it is the editing that means that the film makes money (achieves its financial outcomes) while also providing an experience that the consumer wants (achieving another of its core purposes).
I suspect this is a balance that we all tread on our projects and products, and bringing it to the fore and making tradeoffs transparently and purposefully can only be a good thing!